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China to overhaul rules for foreign workers

December 27, 2011 | 11:24 am

REPORTING FROM BEIJING -- China is planning an overhaul of its regulations for foreign workers, easing the rules for professionals while closing the door to hundreds of thousands of low-wage farm, factory and domestic workers from poorer neighboring nations like Vietnam and North Korea.

A draft bill was submitted Monday by the State Council, China’s equivalent of a cabinet, to the National People’s Congress, state media reported Tuesday. The official Xinhua news agency said the existing regulation had not been substantially revised for 26 years.

The aim is to “facilitate exchanges while making sure that those who should not enter are kept out,” Yang Huanning, deputy minister of public security, told the official Xinhua news agency.

Although illegal immigration isn’t the lightning rod in China that it is in the United States, it is becoming a larger issue here. China’s prosperity and periodic labor shortages have drawn migrants from as far away as Africa.

Vietnamese workers, who earn about half the wages of Chinese workers, harvest sugar cane in the autumn. North Korean women work as domestics in rural northeastern China, filling jobs left by Chinese women who’ve moved to the cities. Young Americans, Canadians and Australians fresh out of college teach English.

"Restricting foreign workers, this is a new problem for us. This issue didn’t exist before China’s opening and reform," said Zhang Wenshan, a law professor at Guangxi University who is involved with the reform of the regulations. "We need to control ordinary labor, while making it easier for foreign experts and talented professionals."

Zhang said he expects the Chinese government to make it easier for key foreign workers to get permanent residence here. "It is going to be very similar to the green-card system in the United States," he said.

State news reports said that China was examining fingerprinting and other biometric techniques for keeping track of foreigners. Penalties are expected to be tightened for illegal workers and companies that hire them.

The state press reported the regulation would allow for detention of up to 60 days for foreigners who have entered illegally, overstayed visas or threatened national security.

The state press has reported that 52 million foreigners visited China in 2010, a figure that has risen annually since 1990. But there are no figures available for the number of foreign workers in China.

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-- Barbara Demick

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