April 19, 2017
11:00 am

China Needs to Tear Down the “Great Wall” Its Migrant Workers Face

Unlike in other countries, where migrant workers come from international locations, China’s rural “migrant workers” come from inside the country’s massive borders. So large is the nation, and the disparity been rural and urban living, that they have entire populations of migrant workers who come from rural areas to work in the cities. They are considered “migrant” outsiders under the government’s hukou classification system. This has created an underclass that do not enjoy the range of social, economic, and cultural benefits that China’s urban citizens receive.

There are approximately 282 million of these migrant workers in China today, making up one third of the entire working population[i]. As a result of certain laws, migrant workers are not able to change their rural household registration documents to many urban locales, which means they cannot “take full advantage of public services such as education, health care, and social security”[ii]. It has also become so difficult for these workers, who make pension payments to the city’s pension fund, to transfer that money to their rural home, that some 48 million people simply stopped making pension payments. This could affect how much money the government has in its coffers, and leaves the workers without a pension to fight for.

The deputy director of the Institute of Economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Zhu Hengpeng, described the disparity in the population as a “Great Wall” that separates urban and rural citizens.

“Migrant workers are being exploited,” he said. “City residents know that migrant workers contribute to social security when they are young but are unable to benefit from it when they go back home. This notion is either shameless or ignorant.”

The issue is that, under the hukou system of household registration, all Chinese people must be classed as either residents of rural or urban areas. The system was introduced in the 1950s to control movement between the two areas, as well as taxation, conscription, and social control. This means that those who are “residents” of rural areas, but live in urban areas for work, are not entitled to access the benefits of the area where they currently reside. This has created a type of caste system, within which the populations are still entrenched. Social status remains a very important aspect of Chinese society.

Zhu says that there are attempts at fixing this broken system from both himself and other like-minded groups of people. His desire is to introduce a national pension and healthcare system, but progress is slow as a result of friction from local governments.

Jiu Ye is an all-female political folk quartet singing about the harsh realities of being a migrant worker[iii], in particular the struggles facing female migrant workers. They sing out against being forced to work overtime, receiving lower wages, and unfair treatment. Their name translates directly to “nine wildernesses”, but is also named after a heavenly realm governed by a Chinese goddess who stands for justice and power.

All the members of the band – Duan Yu, Ren Juan, Xiong Ying, and Ma Wei – live in the suburbs, so it takes them hours to reach their rehearsal space in a cramped, downtown violin store. Duan and Ma both come from China’s north-eastern Liaoning province.

Duan Yu put into words what it feels like to be caught in a migrant worker situation in “A Little Wish”, the first song she wrote for Jiu Ye:

“I live in a village, but it isn’t my home.
I’ve drifted with my parents from a young age.”

Duan Yu had a job that only paid her 400 yuan a month, or about $58 USD. Violinist Ma Wei held a number of menial jobs in factories and doing deliveries, most of which she was fired from in disputes with managers over the treatment of her female colleagues.

The average monthly wage of a migrant worker was 3,072 yuan ($445 USD) in 2015. The majority of migrant workers in China are those who move from rural areas towards city centres. Low wages, cramped living quarters, and backbreaking work await the millions who flock to urban centres every year.

The Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, visited Australia recently in an attempt to bring the two nations economically closer, in the face of “isolationist rhetoric emanating from the White House”[iv]. The visit comes shortly after Foreign Minister Julie Bishop bristled the nation calling on them to embrace liberal democracy, as it would be the “preferred order”[v].

An estimated 526,000 people, or 2.2% of the Australian population, migrated to Australia from China between 2015 and 2016[vi]. This makes it the country with the third most immigrants to Australia. Fairfax uncovered that thousands of “temporary foreign workers” from China were being exploited, with jobs advertised on Mandarin-language websites being advertised at well below the Australian minimum wage[vii].

Signs point to there being decreasing numbers of rural migrant workers across China, but necessarily as a result of growing equality between the rural and urban regions. China’s working-age population has shrunk over the past several years. This is mostly due to the restrictive One Child Policy, introduced in the 1979.

The policy stated that the ethnic majority of Han Chinese were only allowed to have one child per family. The design of the law was so that the population did not outpace economic development. It was always intended to be temporary, with it officially ending on October 29, 2015. It is estimated to have prevented up to 400 million births[viii]. This also led to a gender imbalance with 117.6 boys being born for every 100 girls. By 2020 there will be 30 million more men than women in China, which will likely mean that those men will be unable to find wives within their own country.

This means there is a smaller number of working age people, along with an increasing aging, unable to work population. About 30% of China’s population are over 50 and heading towards retirement. The “once-limitless pool” of rural labour[ix] is now dwindling as the working population shrinks and the nation becomes an entirely “urban society”. This, of course, could have dire economic effects.

One issue arising from the number of rural migrant workers are the “left-behind” children. According to a 2010 survey, there were over 61 million children under the age of 18 who had been left behind by parents who needed to leave to find work. That accounts for 22% of all children in China, and 38% of all rural children. Only 57% of these children live with their grandparents, while 3% live by themselves.

The majority of parents are only able to visit their homes once a year during the Spring Festival. This leaves an enormous population of children without emotional support or care. In turn, a great many of them with psychological or behavioural problems, as well as being at high-risk to become victims for sexual and physical abuse. The government has issued a message of “take your children with you[x]” to parents migrating to urban areas, but this is not always possible. Under the hukou system, the children would not have access to any education or health care while living in the city.

The positive news is that the Chinese government announced that it would be offering residency status to some of those migrant workers who had moved to urban areas from rural areas[xi]. This means they will be entitled to access the health, education, and social services previously denied to them.

The gap between the aging and working population is being slowly closed by the Two-Child Policy, but not by enough to meet the issue of worker shortages. There is also the issue that, after a whole generation of One Child families, many couples simply do not desire a second child, while others are unable to afford it[xii].

A smaller workforce would mean smaller GDP growth[xiii], which would mean the working population likely being unable to afford supporting the much larger aging population. However, simply allowing more births may not fix the problem. For Australia, a nation tied so strongly to the Chinese economy, this could become a very large issue.

“If you’ve got an aging problem now – and it is going to get worse – then having more children doesn’t seem like a sensible way to deal with it,” said Dr Jane Golley, of Australian National University (ANU)[xiv].

“What gave China a surging working-age population all those decades ago was the fertility rate coming down, with a subsequent reduction in youth dependency and a boost in the proportion of workers in the population. But the price they’re paying for that now is their aging population.”

Golley believes that education and training will improve the quality and productivity of the existing workforce. This may indeed help China weather the effects of the looming economic burden of their aging population on the working population. Access to that education, however, may prove difficult, while the hukou system remains in effect, leaving migrant workers and their children stuck in a repeating cycle.

[i] China Labour Bulletin, “Migrant workers and their children”, updated 2017.

[ii] Lin Qiqing for Sixth Tone,Social Scientists Grapples With Migrant Workers’ Unfair Treatment”, December 7, 2016.

[iii] Yin Yijun for Sixth Tone, “Feminist Folk Quartet Gives Voice to China’s Migrant Workers”, March 29, 2017.

[iv] Stephen Dziedzic for ABC News, “Li Keqiang visit: Chinese Premier arrives in Australia for five-day tour”, March 23, 2017.

[v] Andrew Greene for ABC News, “Foreign Minister Julie Bishop delivers warning to China on need to embrace democracy”, March 12, 2017.

[vi] Australian Bureau of Statistics, “3412.0 – Migration, Australia, 2015-2016”, March 30, 2017.

[vii] Beau Donelly for The Age, “Chinese migrants exploited, treated like ‘second-class citizens’”, October 16, 2015.

[viii] Wendy Connett for Investopedia, “Understanding China’s Former One Child Policy”, October 29, 2015.

[ix] Gabriel Wildau for The Financial Times, “China migration: At the turning point”, May 5, 2015.

[x] David McKenzie for CNN, “China to migrant workers: Take your kids with you”, February 16, 2016.

[xi] BBC News, “China to protect migrant workers’ ‘left-behind’ children”, February 15, 2016.

[xii] Casey Hall for Al Jazeera, “How has the end of its one-child policy affected China?”, February 2, 2017.

[xiii] Michael Collins for Fidelity International, “China’s shrinking workforce has big repercussion”, April 2013.

[xiv] Gareth Hutchens for The Sydney Morning Herald, “Will China’s ‘two-child’ policy affect Australia’s economy?”, October 30, 2015.



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