Migrant Workers in China

I’m currently conducting research on issues related to migrant workers and their children in China for my masters dissertation. I grew particularly interested in this subject after having befriended several of my students from rural China whose parents had migrated to cities to find work. Although my thesis will focus on the education of the migrant children in Beijing, I have had to do a lot of background research on the whole rural-urban migration phenomenon in China that has taken place over the past few decades. The statistics I’ve come across are shocking and some personal stories I’ve read about and heard from migrant workers themselves have brought me to tears. In doing my research, I am often reminded of the stories shared with me by my old students and other migrant worker friends who have lived and very personally experienced the challenges and hardships described in academic articles and books I’ve come across. What would’ve been just grim statistics to me a few years ago are now brought to life by the experiences of people I truly care about.

I thought I’d share some of what I have learned so far both from my research and encounters with people here in Beijing over the past month. No doubt there’s still a lot I don’t know and don’t understand, so here is but a small glimpse into some of the many issues related to the rural-urban migration in China. (Some of this I’m pulling directly from my master’s thesis… I hope I don’t get in trouble later on for self-plagiarism.)

First a bit of history behind rural-urban migration in China:

China has been undergoing a process of rapid social and economic change since the 1980s, comparable to the industrial revolution that happened in Europe, but squeezed into a few decades rather than spread over centuries. This has been enabled by and has also fueled widespread migration of people from rural villages to China’s cities. These migrants belong to what is known as China’s ‘floating population’ and presently number an estimated 250 million.

For the past half century, China has operated under a household registry policy (the infamous hukou system) which essentially classifies individuals as being ‘urban’ or ‘rural’ residents. Without an urban hukou in the city, rural migrants do not have access to housing, healthcare services, and social security, nor education for their children in their destination cities. Transferring hukou status is very difficult, so migrant workers have no choice but to live and work in cities ‘illegally’, likely in dangerous and very uncomfortable conditions, and without the same access to basic services as their urban counterparts.

Despite the hardships of migrating, millions of Chinese are still moving from their villages to the cities in search for a better life every year. There simply is not enough work available in the countryside.

Children of Migrant Workers

When migrants move to the city, the question of what to do with their children is often a major concern. Both leaving children behind in villages to be taken care of by relatives and bringing them along to cities has led to major social issues. The All China Women’s Foundation estimated that there are upwards 61 million “Left-Behind Children” (those left in villages by migrant parents) nationally – that’s 20% of all the children in China. According to research, these children who grow up with either friends or relatives – or alone (as one of my old students did starting at the age of 9!) – face both physical and psychological challenges. They’re more likely to be depressed, malnourished, academically challenged, drop out of school, overweight, and commit suicide, among other things. Recent reports have also revealed that left-behind children are much more likely to be sexually abused in their villages than children whose parents have not migrated.

Migrant children in cities also face several challenges and hardships. In 2008, an estimated 20 million migrant children were living with their parents in China’s cities. However, even if they are born in the city where their parents work (which is becoming more and more the case), without an urban hukou, they are still treated as outsiders and do have access to many health and social services, nor educational opportunities. Most migrant children must attend special privately-run ‘migrant schools’, as costs of enrolling in government-run public schools are too high for parents or the students are simply unwelcome. The private migrant children’s schools are generally of very low quality, both in infrastructure (many are located in abandoned factories and buildings) and quality of education. The students often thus fall behind their public-school peers academically beginning in elementary and middle school, and cannot pass examinations needed to enroll in high schools. Some turn to vocational training while others simply drop out.

School drop-outs from rural and urban areas must find work in order survive, those from rural areas also moving to cities in search of greater opportunities. Min, one of my old students from Guizhou, now 18-years-old, is currently doing an internship at a doll-making factory in the outskirts of Beijing. She told me during my last visit to the factory how her sister, who is still back in her home village, is  really considering dropping out of middle school and joining her in the city to make some money. She’s trying very hard to convince her little sister otherwise, as she knows how important it is to first get an education. But Min also realizes how tight her family’s financial situation and struggles her parents are facing to support her sister and brother back home. She’d really like to help out her parents in supporting the family, but with a salary of around 2000rmb/month ($400 CAD), there’s not too much she can do at the moment either.

Young migrants who do end up moving to the cities often have a very difficult time. My present housemate, Tony, moved from his hometown to Beijing about a decade ago when he was in his early 20s. He’s doing alright now – has been able to save money, rented an apartment (which is not spectacular, but livable and conveniently close to my workplace!), and has even been able to invest in an apartment unit in a nearby town where he plans to move eventually. However, he’s told me many stories of his first few years in Beijing… living in extremely dirty, smelly, damp basement ‘apartments’ (I’ll write more about this in a later post), working long hours in unsafe conditions and jobs for very little salary, and generally having a pretty shitty life. Tony said he was very lucky in meeting some people who helped him get a job as a tour guide (I’ll write more about this too later on), which changed his situation completely. But he says the majority of young migrant workers today face the same dire conditions as he did when he first arrived, and many are not as fortunate as he is to find a way out. Unfortunately, things are generally still pretty grim for the majority of migrant workers young and old, as well as their children in China.

It’s kind of a strange feeling to be conducting research on migration issues while regularly interacting with migrant workers and their children, not as subjects of study, but as my friends. I’ve learned a lot by hearing their stories, challenges, and accomplishments. And while it’s certainly meaningful for me as well as helpful for my thesis, I’ve never gotten so emotional writing an academic paper before!

OK, I will stop this post here. Still lots of write about on migration issues, but I’ll save those for another time. Thanks for taking the time to read this.


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