China’s millions of migrant workers

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

10 responses to “China’s millions of migrant workers”

  1. Whenever I hear people (not you, Tom) talk about Chinese migrant workers, I nearly always tell them, “Hey, do us a favour, explain yourself that you’re talking about RURAL migrants.” Why do I give others this piece of aggro? An urban Shanghai native who is (say) a corporate lawyer who goes to work in Beijing is also a migrant worker, technically speaking, but we mostly wouldn’t describe the suit like that.

    The truth is, ‘migrant worker’ is (or has become) a pejorative term in China. Chinese society is full of labels, which wasn’t the case in my day at least. All things being equal, knowing how the average Chinese mind works, I should reckon no rural person would want to ‘go urban’ if their lot in the countryside had been better organised.

    Personally, I don’t have a problem with country people moving into urban areas for work, mainly because they’ve been given one helluva raw deal for such a long time and they’re moving away into strange, frightening locales in order to scratch a living – and getting discriminated in the process through no fault of their own.

    As a ‘migrant worker’ myself, so to speak, having worked in several different countries before, it upsets me to hear others (again, not you, Tom) to brandish unwarranted labels on upstanding, blameless people simply because they’re from another area and/or have apparently less education or wear different clothes or have garlic breath or drink cloudy water.

  2. Thanks for putting back story to the sea of haggard and careworn faces I would see toiling away on unsafe construction sites and those who would flood the Beijing North railway station with their huge rice sacks, and woven plaid sacks you mentioned in the article, during Spring festival time. I heard a Chinese person tell me the other day that Chinese people work to live and hope some day their children and grandchildren can live to enjoy life.

  3. It’s a shame that these people don’t get any respect in the cities. All the city people I talked to viewed migrant workers the same way an American would view illegal Mexican immigrants. Even though they’re from the same country they are 2nd or 3rd class citizens. It’s disgusting.

  4. […] Seeing Red in China Your guide to modern China Skip to content HomeAbout MeComplete ArchiveSuggested SitesChina Books to ReadThe Best China MoviesMap of China ← China’s millions of migrant workers […]

  5. […] other option is to leave their children behind with family members in the countryside (which I explored earlier this week). Here these children also face substandard schools, poor sanitation, limited access to medical […]

  6. […] Every village was full of children and grandparents, but was missing nearly everyone from 20-60 years old. It’s as if this entire group left to work in the cities, giving their best years to a develop a region where they cannot reap the full rewards of their work. […]

  7. […] the past few days we’ve been looking at migrant workers, and issues surrounding the hukou system, including left behind children, and forgotten […]

  8. […] the past few days we’ve been looking at migrant workers, and issues surrounding the hukou system, including left behind children, and forgotten […]

  9. Westlake says:

    This is the so called “Chinese economic mode”: power holder allocate all resources into big cities; divide people into classes the day they were born by Hukou; make the lower class peasants move to sweat shop voluntarily and collect the value they created by taxation to their employer. This is another version of slavery, after it’s been abolished for 150 years in the rest part of the world.

  10. […] population after reform and opening up is something we’ve discussed before in relation to Hukou issues, and the state of rural education. China’s obsession with creating institutions for the […]

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