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Migrant workers sleeping rough in China's big freeze

man walks across snow-covered railway tracks in Hangzhou, 29 January 2008, in eastern China's Zhejiang province, as the country buckled under its harshest winter for half a century. The heaviest snowfall in half a century and freezing temperatures across China have left around 50 dead, ravaged power supplies and affected millions of people's travel plans as they try to get home for the Lunar New Year holidays, China's biggest holiday of the year. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Staff Writers
Guangzhou, China (AFP) Jan 30, 2008
With little cash and nowhere to go, thousands of Chinese migrant workers struggling to get home are sleeping rough as China's transport network buckles under the big freeze.

The system creaks at the seams at the best of times with millions of people on the go, but this year the worst snows in half a century have combined with the peak travel season to spell disaster.

At Guangzhou, like other rail stations up and down the nation, many of the migrant workers are camping out because they have no other choice if they want to see their family at next week's Lunar New Year.

"My factory dormitory is closed. There's nowhere else for me to go," said Zhou Wei, one of many millions who normally toil in the factories of southern China's Guangdong province.

Heavy snow knocked out power on stretches of the railway linking Guangzhou and Beijing, effectively shutting down the province's key link to the rest of the nation and stranding people like Zhou.

As police and security officials struggle to keep a lid on bubbling anger and frustration, Xiao Fang, a worker from southwest China's Sichuan province, said he had been waiting for a train out of Guangzhou for two days.

Without enough money to pay for a hotel, the 43-year-old had so far spent the nights outside a shopping mall, getting only a few hours of uneasy sleep, fearful that someone would make off with his belongings.

"I feel like a refugee. I have to try my best to keep warm," he said.

Then, as unverified rumours spread that long-awaited trains would depart, scenes of chaos developed with anxious crowds pushing and shoving to get to the platform.

Amid the scramble, tightly packed suitcases were torn open, their contents of clothes, umbrellas, toys and food flying into the air.

The belongings were piled up like rubbish and unceremoniously swept away by cleaners.

"I have lived in Guangzhou for 16 years, and this is the most chaotic year I've ever seen," said Li Gang, another factory worker.

Guangdong, a major supplier of toys, mobile phones and other consumer goods to the world market, employs up to 30 million migrant workers from all corners of China.

In a dreary routine of seven-day work weeks, the Lunar New Year is normally the one bright spot when they can return home to see their loved ones.

"My mother is waiting for me, and she will be so upset if I don't go home. Without family, it's not New Year," said factory worker Tang Liangxing.

Local officials made efforts to placate angry travellers by offering free food and water and urging them to go to a local stadium where they could "rest."

But at the stadium travellers found that hard, tasteless bread was the only food available free of charge and in limited supplies.

"I've hardly eaten anything in the past few days and only had money for two pots of noodles a day and some water," said Wang Meichun, a female factory worker who only makes about 1,000 yuan (140 dollars) a month.

"The broadcast kept saying there was free food and water around but I didn't any of see it."

Local officials were also coming up with untraditional ways to reduce potential unrest among the millions of factory workers.

According to the China Daily, the Guangzhou federation of trade unions said it would provide 50 free movie screenings for migrant workers, while inviting 3,000 to attend a New Year's party next week.

"We'll try to bring festive cheer and comfort to them while they are without their families," said Li Yihua, a federation official, according to the paper.

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