Most of China’s construction workers are migrants, leaving their villages to work in the cities, where they can earn a higher wage to send back home. China’s liudong renkou (‘floating’ population), is huge; at least 20 million migrants are believed to work on construction sites.
Despite the contributions they make to the burgeoning economy, migrant workers are barely recognised in the cities they’ve built. According to China’s hukou (household registration system) they are classed as rural citizens, and as such are denied access to healthcare, education and other urban services. Over 100,000 construction workers built the Olympic Park in Beijing, yet migrant workers were encouraged to return home during the Olympic Games to give a ‘clean’ image of the city.
They travel in groups, often from the same village, and spend long periods of time working far away from home. Most construction workers spend their entire time on site, living in dormitories or the unfinished rooms of buildings, drawing out evenings playing pool outside temporary shops or gathering around a television set.
I spent four months with construction workers during 2007 -at the New University Zone in Dalian, Nanjing Exhibition and Conference Centre, and Olympic Park in Beijing.