SCOTT JAGOW: Migrant workers in this country are kind of a quiet, invisible economic force.They do a lot of work that other people don't wanna do. But many of them are illegal, so they don't really raise their voices about their plight. China has migrant workers too. They're called farmers, but a lot of them have moved into the cities. They work in factories. Or clean buildings. Or sell vegetables on the street. And these Chinese migrant workers are starting to speak out. Jocelyn Ford reports from Beijing.
JOCELYN FORD: On a hot summer's day, a group of young school girls dressed in denim mini-skirts and red satin Chinese tops stepped onto a makeshift stage. It was set up outside a new shopping center. They were there to perform, but they didn't sing the usual children's tunes.
They were the kids of menial workers who'd migrated from the countryside. Their message was to the city folks in the audience.
They chanted: "We are just like you. We also have dreams. We also thirst for knowledge."
The occasion was Beijing's first city-backed festival dealing with the touchy issue of empowering migrant workers. They do a lot of the dirty and dangerous jobs city people refuse to do. But they often receive a hostile welcome. Some employers don't pay them their full wages or compensate them when they get injured.
GENEVIEVE DOMENACH-CHICH:"Chinese urban dwellers, frankly speaking, from time to time, look down to migrants. OK?"
Genevieve Domenach-chich of the United Nations organization UNESCO was one of the festival organizers.
DOMENACH-CHICH:"One of the objective of our activities is to let them know their rights so, step by step, they have a stronger voice."
Until three years ago, farmers needed a permit to live in the city. That's because urban governments worried their schools and social services and even water supplies would be overwhelmed by a flood of migrant workers. Farmers who arrived in Beijing without a permit to live here risked being deported back to their village, as if they were foreigners.
Now, the government recognizes there's not enough work for them on the farm. Professor Dorothy Solinger is author of a book on China's migrant workers. She says the Communist Party has also realized it needs to do more to protect them.
DOROTHY SOLINGER:"The central government, it's beginning to become concerned I'd say only in the last year or two."
Concerned that exploited workers are like a powder keg with a short fuse.
SOLINGER:"Its main concern is that the migrants will cause upheaval of different kinds. Instability, resistance, maybe even sabotage."
So, slowly but surely, migrant laborers are gaining a voice. Nowadays, newspapers frequently report on their grievances. The government has also started supporting private projects, like this legal aid office for migrant workers.
Under the whir of a fan, three legal advisors sit behind a simple plastic table. The service was launched a year ago by lawyer Shi Fumao, the son of a farmer.
SHI FUMAO [interpreter]:"My father was a migrant worker. In high school I also did construction work. So I know what the migrant's life is like. It's my duty to help this underprivileged group."
The Beijing government subsidizes the legal aid office with $100 for each case. The government sees this as a model for the rest of the country. But for some clients like construction worker Qi Zengxiang, there are no quick fixes.
Forty-three-year-old Qi is frustrated. It's his sixth visit. A year ago he cracked several ribs when he dropped a load of window frames on a construction site. But lawyers say he doesn't have a case because he signed a paper and accepted $100 worth of medical fees.
At the time, he didn't know he might be entitled to more. Since, he educated himself on his rights. Today he's toting a pile of dog-eared law books. He wants at least $600 for missed work due to his injury.But he thinks the system is rigged against him.
He says he is poor and has no money to sue. And he doesn't have any connections with government officials who might pressure his employer. China's legal system is still a work in progress, and many people believe judges can be easily bought off.
Professor Dorothy Solinger says there's a risk to encouraging migrants to pursue their rights if they don't get a fair shake.
SOLINGER:"I don't think the government has thought through that people who don't get their grievances resolved might move on to more upheaval."
At the moment, Qi isn't thinking of that. He's been pursuing a better package for a year. And he plans to keep coming back until he gets one.
In Beijing, I'm Jocelyn Ford for Marketplace.