(Adds quote from Beijing vice mayor, paragraphs 6-7)
By Lindsay Beck
BEIJING, March 12 (Reuters) - China's army of migrant construction workers toiling to revamp Beijing for the Olympics face routine exploitation and need better protection, benefits and the right to strike, a watchdog group said on Wednesday.
In a report, New York-based Human Rights Watch said Beijing's construction workforce -- mostly poor migrants from the countryside -- work in dangerous conditions, have no access to medical treatment and often go unpaid.
"Despite years of government rhetoric, employers still cheat migrant construction workers of hard-earned wages," said Sophie Richardson, the group's Asia advocacy director.
"And when it comes to basic social services, the government still discriminates against migrants," she said in a statement.
Beijing is a sea of construction cranes as the city builds venues and villages and razes neighbourhoods to present a modern face for the Olympic Games it will host in August.
The city's more than 1 million migrant construction workers usually live on-site in squalid, cramped conditions, where they are vulnerable to workplace injury and exploitation by employers.
Beijing vice-mayor Ji Lin said the city "paid great concern" to conditions of workers on Olympic construction sites.
"If any abuses of workers' rights are discovered during this process we will take appropriate measures according to the law," Ji told a news conference.
But Human Rights Watch said they face institutionalised discrimination from China's "hukou" system of household registration, the report said, calling on authorities to scrap residency restrictions.
"That alone would make it easier for workers to file complaints and for authorities to prosecute employers who violate labour laws," the report said.
The hukou system is designed to control the influx of rural residents to cities, but it also leaves migrants without access to the social welfare benefits accorded urban residents.
China's Minister of Labour and Social Security said migrant workers should be entitled to the same treatment and terms of protection as city-dwellers, but indicated there were no immediate plans for scrapping the decades-old hukou.
"Investigations are being conducted and we will formulate a plan for the future," Tian Chengping told a recent news conference at China's annual session of parliament.
Human Rights Watch said the underclass status of migrants, China's ban on independent trade unions and the lack of guarantee under Chinese law of the right to strike left workers with little means to seek redress for violations through legal channels.
China should allow for the establishment of unions and ratify the International Labour Organisation's articles on the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, it said.
The government should also blacklist firms guilty of wage exploitation from tendering for state-financed construction projects and target executives of guilty companies, imposing "meaningful and consequential" penalties for abuses.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang did not comment on the content of report, but attacked the organisation, telling a news conference that Human Rights Watch "has a problem with vision but is unwilling to wear glasses".
In addition to China's Communist authorities, the report said the International Olympic Committee (IOC) also had a responsibility to ensure that Games venue sites met labour standards and should seek certification.
Human Rights Watch said the IOC should request that China disclose labour abuses, workplace injuries and deaths on construction sites for Olympic venues.
China has said six workers died during the construction of venues, including two at the showpiece Bird's Nest Stadium. (Additional reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Jeremy Laurence) ("Countdown to Beijing Olympics" blog at blogs.reuters.com/china)