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China’s Internal Migrants

Author: Andrew Scheineson
Updated: May 14, 2009

Introduction

Ever since China first instituted major economic reforms three decades ago, it has undergone unprecedented social transformations. Economic development and rapid urbanization have spurred massive internal migration, largely from the countryside to towns and cities, by individuals in search of jobs and higher wages. Official statistics place the number of internal migrants in China at over one-tenth of China's 1.3 billion people. Yet when migrants leave their homesteads, they are confronted with discrimination and a long string of inequities, many of which are perpetuated by China's longstanding household registration system. Despite reforms, the system still limits migrant access to public services guaranteed to urban residents. Because of their transitory existence in China's economy, these internal migrants have become known as the liudong renkou, or "floating population."

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The Great Internal Migration

China's economic boom has drawn rural Chinese to cities in search of higher incomes. The rural migrant worker population has expanded significantly, increasing from roughly 30 million in 1989 to more than 140 million in 2008, according to China's National Bureau of Statistics (Boxun). The massive influx of rural residents into cities was initially facilitated by important reforms in the 1980s. Li Shi, a professor at Beijing Normal University, observes that when China relaxed its restrictive policies on labor migration, the large surplus labor force created by agricultural decollectivization was finally able to find work away from home. Throughout the early 1990s, a stream of peasants left their farmland and took up non-agricultural vocations, sending remittances home to family members remaining in the village. During the late 1990s, local government concerns about social instability stemming from high rates of urban unemployment led many cities to set restrictions on jobs available to rural migrants. Most migrants could only find employment in dirty or dangerous sectors shunned by locals. By the following decade, however, Beijing realized these restrictions "generated many negative impacts on the...rural economy," says Li, and in 2006 the State Council passed a directive requiring local governments to ensure equal rights and opportunities to migrant workers.

Migrant workers are young, poorly educated, generally healthy, and highly mobile and are therefore heavily represented in manufacturing, construction, and social services industries--short-term employment sectors which account for over 60 percent of rural migrants. Many--57 percent according to a 2006 State Council study--get their jobs based on contacts such as friends, relatives, and neighbors. An official survey from 2004 showed that 45 percent of migrants were between the ages of 16 and 25, and only 16 percent were over 40. Nearly two-thirds of all migrants were male, likely due to traditional Chinese division of labor by sex, according to Li. Roughly 83 percent had nine years of education or less. Despite their often unsafe occupations, a 2008 University College of London study found that migrants, had the "best self-rated health and reported the least acute illness, chronic disease, and disability."

Household Registration System Excludes Migrants

Despite accounting for 40 percent of the urban labor force, China's migrant workers face major inequalities in the cities because of China's two-tiered hukou--or household registration--system. Established in the 1950s, the hukou system kept people tied to where they lived by making government services contingent on their occupation and place of residence. While agricultural laborers received land, nonagricultural hukou holders received rations as well as public services.  A 2005 report by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), a U.S. commission with the legislative mandate to monitor human rights in China, notes the system's rules keep rural residents from obtaining many of the same services as their urban counterparts, including health and unemployment insurance, pensions, free education for their children, and subsidized housing. Many cities do allow peasants to apply for temporary residence permits, but unequal access to social benefits remains stark. A 2007 Amnesty International report claims that China's preservation of hukou registration violates the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

China's household registration system keeps rural residents from obtaining many of the same services as their urban counterparts, including health and unemployment insurance, pensions, free education for their children, and subsidized housing.

Efforts have been made to reform the hukou system at all levels of government to allow migrants to change hukou status more easily but with limited impact on rural migrants. The number of rural hukou holders who meet the financial and educational conditions set out by reforms remains relatively low, thus continuing to "exclude the majority of Chinese migrant workers," according to the CECC. This creates what Washington University law professor and former CFR Fellow Carl Minzner refers to as the "upper crust" of migrants.

A major reason why more substantial hukou reforms haven't been attempted is the sheer cost of extending urban social services to China's enormous rural migrant population. In the city of Zhuhai in southern Guangdong Province, for example, the financial burden of accommodating rising numbers of hukou holders forced the city to stop accepting applications in April 2008. While a Department of Migrant Workers' Affairs was established in 2008 to handle problems facing migrant workers, any advocacy on its part for hukou reforms will go up against the interests of a number of bureaucratic institutions, including local public security bureaus, according to the CECC's 2008 annual report.

Difficulties and Discrimination

According to the China Labor Bulletin (CLB), a Hong Kong-based NGO, "Migrant workers in general, and female migrants in particular, who generally work in low-paid, labour-intensive sectors, are often subjected to long overtime hours, poor or unsafe working conditions and frequently are owed back wages by employers." Discrimination or harassment from employers is common, and legal redress is often unattainable within China's judicial system. The litany of disadvantages and abuses includes the following:

  • Unpaid wages and social security. Migrant workers are not only paid less than urban workers, sometimes they aren't paid at all due to a lack of legal protection. While conditions have improved in recent years, the CECC's 2008 annual report notes that non-payment of wages "is rampant," particularly in the construction industry. Furthermore, migrant workers have low participation rates in pension and other social insurance programs. A UN Development Program report (PDF) from 2005 estimates that fewer than 5 percent of migrant workers receive full or partial pension insurance. Though some cities are seeking to ease their rules on portability of benefits, migrant workers often have trouble transferring pensions and social security benefits to their hometowns due to restrictive local regulations.

  • Unfair working conditions, no labor contracts. Migrant workers frequently work long hours under unsafe conditions, often without the benefit of labor contracts and institutional protection. According to Li, the 2002 Chinese Household Income Project Survey showed that more than 80 percent of rural migrants worked seven days a week. "Migrant workers in China, and construction workers in particular, are also vulnerable to high rates of injury and death in working environments in which the majority of employers fail to pay legally-required medical and accident insurance," states a 2008 Human Rights Watch report on construction workers for the Beijing Olympics. Furthermore, as recently as 2004, only 21 percent of migrant workers had contracts with their employers.

There have been recent improvements in legal protections for migrant workers, however. In 2007, the National People's Congress adopted a new Labor Contract Law requiring all employers to sign contracts with their employees. Additionally, CLB reports that migrant workers have started winning significant court victories for workplace injury compensation and unpaid wages. Labor lawsuits jumped more than 95 percent (CLB) between 2007 and 2008. Nevertheless, workplace discrimination and unfair treatment remain prevalent throughout the country, say experts.

    "Migrant workers in general, and female migrants in particular, who generally work in low-paid, labour-intensive sectors, are often subjected to long overtime hours, poor or unsafe working conditions, and frequently are owed back wages by employers." – China Labor Bulletin

  • Gender discrimination. Female migrant workers, who comprise roughly one-third of all internal migrants, are vastly overrepresented in unskilled, low-paying, and labor-intensive factories. CLB notes that young, single women are preferred in these industries because they are more easily controlled and less likely to know their rights. Despite provisions in the Chinese Labor Law that stipulate employers allow for maternity leave, many refuse to abide by the law. A 2003 study from the All-China Women's Federation showed that 21 percent of female rural migrant workers were fired after becoming pregnant or giving birth. Sexual harassment and abuse are also frequently reported.
  • Education. Internal migrants with rural hukou status must pay a "donation" for their children, who automatically inherit their parents' hukou status, to attend urban schools. These fees, which in Beijing can exceed the salary of some construction workers, according to a 2006 report (PDF) from the UN's International Labor Organization, can be a heavy burden, preventing about half of the estimated 6.5 million migrant children from attending school. Although cheaper schools for migrants exist, the quality of teachers and facilities is generally lower than in regular schools. "The government operates under the assumption that these kids will be going back [home] in a couple years, but they're not," says Zai Liang, an expert on Chinese migration at the State University of New York at Albany.
  • Public health. Not only do internal migrants face greater occupational hazards, but more than 80 percent lack health insurance. They often live in cramped housing situations where diseases such as tuberculosis can easily spread, creating a public health risk. Also, because a large portion of migrants are men who, in some cases, have relations with sex workers, they are more highly susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases. Officials estimate that migrant workers accounted for some 80 percent of Beijing's new HIV cases in 2006.
Unemployment, Instability, and a Possible Economic Shift

The global financial crisis, which led to sharp drops in demand for Chinese exports, has hit rural migrants particularly hard. In February 2009, Beijing announced that over one in seven--20 million migrant workers--could not find work (NYT) or had been laid off. In March, updated figures estimated that 14 million rural migrants had remained home after the Lunar New Year, while 11 million who had returned to the city were still unable to find work (Telegraph). The sudden surge in unemployment, warn some observers and government officials, may lead to social instability. Over the past few years, growing agitation among migrant workers in response to unpaid wages and poor working conditions has led to increased unrest. In 2004, there were more than 850 protests (CRS) involving over 50,000 workers in the heavily industrialized Pearl River Delta of Guangdong Province alone.

Over the past few years, growing agitation among migrant workers in response to unpaid wages and poor working conditions has led to increased unrest.

Expectations of a spike in unrest among unemployed migrants have thus far proved to be unfounded, however, possibly due to a series of government measures. These central policies, detailed in a State Council resolution (in Chinese) issued in late December 2008, are aimed at retraining and increasing job opportunities for unemployed migrants, developing rural areas, increasing rural access to public services, and ensuring that returning migrants can still lay claim to their agricultural land. According to a New York Times report in March 2009, Guangdong Province "is quadrupling its vocational training program this year to teach four million workers." While the intent of these measures may be to keep angry unemployed workers off the streets, an allegation which Chinese officials deny, they may also be part of a broader government effort to restructure the economy. By retraining low-skilled workers, say some experts, government officials may simultaneously be trying to increase employment opportunities for rural migrants and shift China's industry toward more advanced, high-tech sectors, maintaining the country's international competitiveness in the long term.

Carin Zissis contributed to this Backgrounder.

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