In China, “migrant worker” has a very different meaning than it does in most other countries. Here it refers to people who have left their hometowns in search of work (usually on the East Coast). Currently this group makes up nearly 20% of China’s total population, although it is hard to say exactly how many people work outside of their hometowns for a part of the year. Over the next few days we’ll be exploring issues related to this topic.
Migrant workers often work the least desirable jobs in China’s major cities, like garbage collectors, window washers, and sweatshop workers, etc. They accept meager wages, because farming offers little or no hope of moving up in society, and these jobs add just a tiny bit more. Many of my former students’ parents filled these roles, and sadly some of my students have not escaped these positions themselves, despite having college degrees.
A Typical Migrant Worker
Imagine you are the father of a young child in a small village in rural Guangxi. As a farmer you would be allocated a small plot of land to farm, that would only enable you to earn roughly 1,200rmb per year. Your home consists of little more than mud and brick, and your town lacks even a single paved road, but it is your hometown. Only your family, which has lived here for generations, is nearer to your heart.
Yet when you watch TV you feel pulled in another direction. You see that in the big cities people own their own cars, wear designer brands, and might even be able to travel to other countries. Inside, you know that no amount of work could ever make this lifestyle available to you, but it might be possible for your grandchild if you start now. You tell your wife that she is coming too, one factory salary would hardly make a difference.
After a brief family meeting it is decided that your son will be left with his 60 year old grandmother, who is now also in charge of the farming. You stuff your few pairs of clothes along with a few blankets and a pillow into a plaid-striped, over-sized bag made of a woven plastic material and take the bus to the nearest train station. It takes you nearly 4 hours to arrive.
From there you smash on board as you make your way to a small city outside of Guangzhou, your cousin’s classmate works in a factory there and says they need more workers. When you arrive 10 hours later, you learn that those positions have already been filled by teenagers half your age.
Finally you manage to find a construction job on the edge of this small city. You lie and say that you have experience, and hope that they are desperate enough for work to believe you. Your work consists of moving bricks from one point to another for 12+ hours each day. The room you sleep in is shared by six other men, and is located a few hundred feet from where you work, and you can hear the second shift hammering away through the thin walls. In the summer your room feels like an oven, and in the winter you cover the windows with newspaper to try to trap what little heat there is.
Your wife manages to find a job working in a factory that makes cheap mobile phones for the domestic market, it’s roughly an hour away from where you will be working, and time and money are too precious to spend for a visit. You often worry that she’ll leave you for a manager, or someone else with a higher salary than you, and she worries that you’ll waste your money on cigarettes, alcohol and prostitutes. You both remain faithful though, since this new life of endless work is not about you, but your child.
At Spring Festival you meet at the train station, and fight for days before you are able to secure a journey home. You’ve spent hundreds of yuan on gifts for your son and mother, and the train ride passes slowly as you imagine the look on your child’s face as you walk through the door.
When you do arrive, your heart breaks as he fails to recognize you, but you never share this with anyone else. This is the only way you can provide a better life for him, and you can’t let yourself question it.
Tomorrow we’ll be looking at the history of the Hukou (city residence permit)
For an excellent film suggest, read my review of Last Train Home