By Jessica Wang
As Chinese New Year looms just around the corner, Chinese citizens are projected to make over three billions trips—whether via plane, train, motorbike or bus—known collectively as the world’s largest annual human migration. Although most officially only get the week of Chinese New Year off (which falls on February 16th this year), some take as much as a month off; for many people, this is their one chance every year to see their families.
Last week, a tear-jerking video of a Chinese train attendant’s three-minute reunion with her son went viral on WeChat. The train attendant, who works on the train that runs a six day-journey route from Harbin to Nanning, is forced to work through the holiday due to the large numbers of people in transit. The narrator’s sister offers to bring the narrator’s son to a train station stop. In the exactly three minutes that mother and son are together, the son insists on reciting his multiplication tables, finishing just as the train doors slide shut. His mother had joked that if he didn’t memorize them while she was gone, she might not come back, and her child had apparently taken her seriously.
The video also depicts jam-packed train stations, where many sleep on sacks of bedding or anxiously guard their gifts for home, which range from flat-screen TVs and children’s clothing to tubs of beef. Some are returning to their parents’ hometowns, or from school or work. The majority of these long-distance travelers, however, are migrant workers, returning from the cities they work in to their hometowns.
In China, migrant workers comprise one third of the working population. These 282 million people are the driving force behind China’s rapid economic growth, providing cheap labor primarily in the construction and manufacturing industries. Most workers have only a middle-school education. The workforce is also graying. In the construction industry, for example, it’s difficult to find anyone under the age of thirty as younger employees reject such dangerous, low-paid jobs (in 2017, there were 104 deaths a day). However, since only about 22 percent of migrant workers have a basic pension or medical insurance, older employers are forced to keep working, as they have no social safety net to support them. Only 35% of workers even have formal labor contracts with their employers, and in 2016, 2.37 million workers suffered from wage arrears (non-payment of salary). This is the most important cause of labor disputes in China. The average monthly salary of a migrant worker is a mere 3,275 yuan, or $517 USD a month. Considering that in 2016, 84% of migrant workers worked 25.2 days a month and 8.7 hours a day, this tallies up to a wage of $2.36/hour. This number increases by about 20 cents in transportation and logistics, but is even lower in household services and hotel and catering services. In major cities, rent accounts for over half a worker’s income, and in Beijing, can even constitute 100% of a migrant worker’s salary—thus, workers live in squalid buildings in the outskirts of cities. Last November, a fire in a shanty town in the outskirts of Beijing killed 19 people.
Migrant workers typically hold rural hukou, which is the domestic passport used to give citizens access to social services. This household registration system has been in place since 1958, classifying citizens as either rural or urban, but is hereditary, meaning that many people who hold rural hukou have actually been dwelling in cities for years. The system is meant to ensure that the rural population remain in the countryside in order to provide resources for urban residents. With the economic reforms of the 1980s, however, rural workers migrated to cities to provide cheap labor in factories. The hukou system was relaxed after a migrant worker, Sun Zhigang, was arrested and beaten to death in police custody due to hukou issues. However, the system still makes it hard for migrant workers to gain access to social services in the city.
In particular, hukou makes it hard for migrant children to attend public schools, and even those who get in are ostracized by their city classmates. Instead, most children of migrant workers (around 61 million minors) stay in their hometowns under the care of their grandparents, who are often poorly educated and lack the ability to care for their grandchildren’s emotional needs. Surveys indicate that many of these “left-behind” children develop psychological or behavioral problems, are injured or physically or sexually abused, and are frequently implicated in crimes. Regretting their absence for so much of their children’s childhoods, many migrant workers are making the difficult decision to return home and seek lower-paid work. In addition, since city residents often see the large population of migrant workers as a threat, cities like Beijing and Shanghai frequently evict their migrant workers. In fact,both cities have announced population caps seeking to decrease the proportion of “low-end populations.”
A few cities acknowledge the plight of migrant workers. For instance, Hangzhou, a coastal city in Zhejiang province, has pledged to build 40,000 more housing units. The Chinese government could implement hukou reform, stop evictions, subsidize housing and medical care, provide insurance plans,. and stem the backlog of unpaid wages by protecting their migrant workers through formal contracts. With the conclusion of the building boom in 2015, and as China begins to outsource many low-cost, labor-intensive factories to other countries in Southeast Asia, the number of construction and manufacturing workers has declined, leaving many jobless. The annual rate of migrant worker growth has also dipped.
President Xi vows to eradicate rural poverty by 2020, and the United Nations has lauded the government’s success over the past few decades in lifting millions out of poverty. But any changes beyond temporary fixes will take time, and the lives of millions of people are at stake.