Millions of Chinese from rural areas and small towns have made and continue to make the pilgrimage to the country’s big cities where the promise of a better life for themselves and their families looms amid sky rises and urban growth. Once they arrive, however, it can be rough going. Several factors contribute to the hardships the more than 120 million migrants face. Coming from poorer areas of China, they lack education. Many cannot read or write and they operate under different social and etiquette norms which set them apart a city’s local residents. They are not qualified for higher paying jobs, thereby further enforcing a second (or even third) class mentality. Migrants are easily taken advantage of by corrupt bosses and criminal organizations and many end up homeless and begging.
But migrant workers are a tough, hard working bunch without which metropolises would have fewer buildings, unkempt campuses, and a lot more dirty counter tops. Migrants are part of the infrastructure allowing China’s cities to grow and, incidentally, the countryside. Migrant workers send a large portion of their salaries home. An article from 2004 in the China Daily reported that the money migrants from Anhui send home is equivalent to that province’s annual GDP. The article reports, “these funds are used to improve farmers' living standards, build houses and roads, establish schools and help boost rural economic development.”
While many migrants leave behind their wives and children, a large number of families relocate to the city. This too brings along the challenge of receiving proper care and education for migrant’s children as their parents work long hours. With no residence permit, children are delegated to poorly funded schools where class rooms often house 50 children or more. At best, students get a bare bones education, and have little hope of matriculating.
The New Migrants
For an emerging group of migrants, however, the times they are a changing. A recent article from CSR Asia highlights a new generation of migrants born in the 1980’s who are better educated and “[care] about being paid on time…they also care a great deal about working hours, workplace conditions, training opportunities and social welfare. They are …less willing to endure tough times, but they are perhaps braver and more willing to choose between jobs and even speak up when their rights are denied.”
Whether or not China’s city-dwellers realize it or not, the impact of this new generation may be significant. For these internet proficient, fashion conscious, literate masses, the increasing realization that they do have leverage in the workplace, even if they don’t a hukou (residence permits), means they are not likely to accept the old way of doing things. It can only be hoped that their entrance into the workplace will not only help ameliorate working conditions but will also challenge long held stereotypes.
The Economic Downturn
As this new crop of migrant workers gets their bearings, the economic downturn threatens the futures of all migrants. It goes without saying that people buy and build less in times of Recession. China’s manufacturing sector has taken a hit and therefore so have China’s migrant workers. Since January, factories have shut down and laid off millions of workers, leaving many already low-paid migrants with no income and no choice but to return to the impoverished countryside. Despite a reported that urban unemployment rose by 4.3% during the first quarter of this year (Shanghai Daily via Xinhua) 90% of migrant workers who spent Chinese New Year in their hometowns returned to the cities after the holiday. If job losses continue to increase, however, many of the 90% may be forced to return home, where they can at least receive some government assistance.
Help and Hope
The Chinese government and some city-dwellers are actively pursuing ways to better the conditions of migrant workers. Ethical labor practices are being developed as well as the sanctioning of businesses that refuse to compensate migrants for their work. The government has also taken steps to provide jobs for millions out of work due to the economic downturn.
Because migrants tend to work long shifts and can be itinerant-living on the job sites and moving once projects are finished, hands-on aid is a difficult task. A few small groups help homeless trash collectors by providing them with clothing, showers, medical care, and food. In the CSR realm, most initiatives do not help the workers themselves, but their children.
In Shanghai an organization called Giving Tree collects names, ages, and sizes of the neediest children at some of the city’s 200+ migrant schools. Individuals, schools, and companies then purchase clothes, toys, and other gifts for the children which are then delivered during Christmas and Chinese New Year season. Groups of students and adults also make regular trips to schools to supplement the curriculum with English, art, and sports classes.
During this time of economic difficulty, it is our hope that the Chinese public will become more aware of the conditions in which migrants work and live and that, in turn, they will use their influence to encourage further legislation, community support, and blur class lines.