Guangdong ramps up efforts to woo skilled migrants

GUANGZHOU - THE southern Chinese province of Guangdong, long a destination for migrant workers, is stepping up efforts to grant "high-calibre" workers access to subsidised public services such as education and health care in its cities.

Taking the lead is provincial capital Guangzhou, which says it will ramp up a point-based scheme to grant hukou - a household registration certificate - to those who qualify.

This comes in the wake of an ambitious reform blueprint issued by the central government last Friday. Among other things, it called for changes to a restrictive system that fixes a person's hukou - and thus access to public services - to his place of birth.

Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, Guangzhou executive vice-mayor Chen Rugui said the city is enhancing a two-year-old scheme to help "more knowledge-based and high-calibre personnel become registered residents".

Under this province-wide policy, migrant workers earn points based on their education and skills. When they hit a certain target, they can then apply for hukou. This differs from city to city; for instance, those in Guangzhou require 60 points to qualify this year while those in Shenzhen need 100.

As of March, some 1.2 million migrant workers in Guangdong have attained hukou in its cities.

Within Guangzhou, 6,000 have gained the coveted status - a minuscule fraction of the eight million migrant workers who make up half its population.

Looking ahead, far more will likely be in the offing.

Speaking on the sidelines of the briefing, Mr Chen Haotian, deputy director-general of its reform and development commission, said the city, which now has 8.3 million hukou-registered residents, has the capacity to absorb up to 10 million in the next decade. This translates into a potential 170,000 spots for migrant workers per year.

The government of Dongguan, a manufacturing hub, said on Wednesday that it is concentrating efforts on facilitating hukou transfers especially for workers with technical skills.

It started doing so in 2008 to retain workers, said Mr Xian Zhou'en, director of the city's economy and information technology bureau, but did not give numbers.

New entrants have since been dubbed in the city as xin guan ren (the new Dongguan people).

The hukou system was originally designed to prevent villagers from flooding the cities, but has failed to keep hundreds of millions from doing so. This means that many are in effect illegal immigrants who have to return to their hometowns for medical care and are separated from their children studying there.

Now, the controls will be relaxed, said the Communist Party leadership after its four-day meeting ending last week. Rural dwellers will be free to move to towns and small cities, restrictions to mid-sized cities will be liberalised "in an orderly way", while access to big cities will be based on "rational sets of conditions".

Guangdong, traditionally known as a forerunner of reforms, has moved ahead in a small way with its point-based scheme. In July, Shanghai launched one for the application of residence permits.

But the need for change is especially urgent in the coastal province, which has long depended on cheap migrant workers from poorer provinces inland such as Sichuan and Hunan.

However as economic growth across the country picks up speed, factory bosses are complaining that workers are harder to come by as they prefer to stay at home.

Meanwhile, activists say, labour disputes have also increased, with workers unhappy about lack of access to benefits playing a part. According to the China Labour Bulletin, there have been 12 disputes this month so far.

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