Beijing Olympics - A Bird's Nest View

Thousands of migrant workers toil night and day preparing for the Olympic Games.


BEIJING, China, June 6, 2007— -- Looking down on the Beijing National Stadium, known as the "bird's nest" because of its bands of steel that resemble twigs and branches, one can see brightly colored hard hats rushing around the stadium at breakneck speed.

With little over a year left before the Olympic Games begin, constructions workers are busy building and polishing for China's most anticipated event: the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games.

The flagship venue of the Olympic games is the National Stadium. It is where the Olympic Torch will be lit and where sprinters will set world records before over 90,000 fans and millions watching from around the world.

But before the records are broken and medals are awarded, thousands of migrant workers will complete the construction. Who exactly are these migrant workers and where do they come from?

Unlike the United States, they are not locally hired. China has more than 120 million migrant workers. In the construction industry, it is estimated more than 70 percent of the workers are former farmers.

Most migrant workers in China's large cities come from poor rural areas. Those interviewed inside the National Stadium are no different.

Approximately 5,300 migrant workers make up the force behind Beijing's Olympic construction. Many hail from Henan, China's most populous province. A quick survey of hometowns produced enthusiastic echoes of "Henan! Henan!" throughout the Bird's Nest.

Almost all construction workers here are men, although one steelworker pointed out, "There are women here too, there aren't many but there are more than one or two."

Few women work as migrant labourers due to the nature of the job - workers go home twice a year or less, so typically the father leaves town to find work while the mother stays behind to care for the children and - in traditional homes - grandparents too.

These workers at the National Stadium make an average of 1,500 Chinese Yuan a month. That adds up to less than two hundred U.S. dollars per month, or less than 2,400 dollars per year. "I send nearly all of my money home," said Mr. Zhang, who lays rebar and pours concrete. He has been working at the Olympic Park for over a year, "I'm supporting my wife and child."

When asked if they were satisfied with their pay, a group of construction workers immediately answered with a chorus of yeses. "It's not bad. I can't complain," another 25-year-old migrant said. "It's really not bad."

According to China's National Bureau of Statistics, migrant laborers in Chinese cities earn an average of 966 Yuan (about $120) per month. This is much more than the average farmer but pales in comparison to urban residents. Unfortunately, take-home pay and city politics will prevent most migrant workers from participating in the Olympics they are building for. Rumor has it that the Beijing government will begin a clean sweep of its cities ? removing the homeless and migrant ? beginning next spring.

Although local Beijing officials have denied reports that the city plans to expel its one million migrant workers for the duration of the 2008 Olympics, it seems as if many will watch from afar anyway, but for another reason. Ticket prices for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games will be much lower than at previous Olympic Games and affordable for most people, according to the "people-oriented" plan released by local organizers last fall.

But according to the workers in the Olympic Park last week, the Olympic experience will still remain out of reach. Despite the fact that some ticket prices will hover below 100 Yuan (about $13), most said they will likely stay home. However, it does not seem to bother Mr. Zhang.

Come August next year, he is just as excited to host the Olympics from Henan as he would be in Beijing.Looking up at the National Stadium, Mr. Zhang said, "This is China's Olympics. I am happy the world will come here to our country. China has a lot to share."

Jo L. Kent is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in China. Her first documentary, "Lijiang: A Cultural Evolution" will be released this summer. For more information, please email

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