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Internal migration

ILO, China launch first HIV/AIDS prevention campaign for internal rural migrant workers

The 200 million internal migrant workers in China play a vital role in the country’s mining, construction, and transportation sectors. But the lack of awareness about HIV puts them at risk of contracting the disease. Last November, the ILO and China’s State Council AIDS Committee Office jointly launched the country’s first HIV/AIDS prevention campaign for internal rural migrant workers. ILO Online reports from Beijing.

Article | 17 December 2008

BEIJING, China (ILO Online) – Zhang Xiao Hu is a man of few words. When asked about his days as a migrant worker in large cities, Xiao Hu is overwhelmed by the memory of loneliness and fear. It was not because he had no friends. He had plenty of them. But his life was overshadowed by a secret.

“I was very scared. I could not tell my fellow migrant workers that I had HIV. They would avoid me. Nobody would want to work, eat, or share the dormitory with me.”

Every year, thousands of internal migrant workers in China leave their homes in rural villages and towns in search of better job opportunities in larger, more prosperous cities. According to official estimates, some 200 million people in China’s workforce are internal migrant workers. That’s about 15 per cent of the country’s population, one of the largest movements of people anywhere in the world.

“Migrant workers are an important element of our HIV/AIDS prevention efforts. The next crucial steps include a much broader strategy reaching many more migrant workers with prevention activities”, says Pu Yi, a local director for China’s Centre for Disease Control. “In this segment of the population, we should continue to focus on the risks associated with unsafe sexual behaviour, with an emphasis on the critical role of condoms in HIV/AIDS prevention.”

Standing at just about 0.05 per cent, China’s HIV prevalence remains low, according to United Nations and government estimates. But the epidemic is growing in numbers and spreading geographically. This has prompted the government to place greater emphasis on protecting rural migrant workers from HIV infection and preventing HIV from passing from so-called high-risk groups to the population in general.

With funding from the US Department of Labor, the ILO has launched a Workplace Education Programme in three provinces: Anhui, Guangdong, and Yunnan. The programme is part of efforts to help the ILO’s partners in the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, the China Enterprise Confederation, and the All China Federation of Trade Unions to achieve the country’s decent work objectives.

“The programme helps us to reach out to workers, ensure their occupational safety and health, and protect their right not to be discriminated against or stigmatized because of HIV/AIDS”, says Ms. Constance Thomas, Director of the ILO Office in China. “What’s more, the programme allows us to target the highly mobile internal migrant worker population.”

China has made progress on HIV prevention over recent years, but more needs to be done. An ILO survey (Note 1) shows that negative attitudes of migrant workers towards the disease are still widespread. Eight out of ten workers say that they do not want to work with a person who is HIV-positive.

Xiao Hu is hoping to change this kind of attitude. He is the first migrant worker in China who has disclosed his HIV-positive status. He has recently starred in a public service announcement along with the famous Chinese actor Wang Bao Qiang, who was a migrant worker himself. The film was directed by Cannes Film Festival winner Gu Chang Wei.

Xiao Hu played a role he was all too familiar with: a construction worker who is rejected by co-workers and friends because of his HIV status. The film is part of China’s first HIV prevention campaign featuring migrant workers.

Despite his major role in the film, Xiao Hu remains very camera shy. But when it comes to speaking to other migrant workers about HIV prevention and the discrimination workers are facing, Xiao Hu is determined to help spread the message of tolerance and acceptance at the workplace.

Note 1 - Internal rural migrant workers in China are Chinese citizens from rural areas who migrate to more developed urban areas where they are able to find work. However due to the Chinese residential registration system which distinguishes between urban and rural residence status, the majority of rural migrants living and working in urban areas face limitations on their access to public and health services in the urban areas where they work.

English version forthcoming. For more information, please contact the ILO Office for China and Mongolia at tel. +8610/653.25.091; fax: +8610/653.21.420; e-mail: