The Children of Migrant Workers in China

Table of Contents

  1. Part one: Those left behind

  2. Part two: Under the same blue sky? Rural migrant children in urban China

  3. Part three: The government's response

  4. Part four: Conclusions and recommendations

Part Four: Conclusions and recommendations

It has been argued that migrant workers have a choice whether or not to leave home and look for work in the cities. In reality, this is a choice between accepting economic deprivation in the countryside or social disadvantage in the cities. The children of migrant workers, however, can only passively accept the choices made by their parents, and often suffer more than their parents in terms of psychological harm as well as economic and social deprivation.

If they are left behind in the countryside, children have to deal with a wide range of problems engendered by long-term separation from their parents; insecurity, anxiety and fear. They are more likely to be victims of accidents and crime, or suffer from psychological and behavioural problems. In many areas, well over two thirds of juvenile criminal offences are committed by left-behind children. The government has sponsored a programme of stand-in parents to help nurture and supervise left-behind children but all too often these stand-in parents are recruited under a quota system and do not have the time or ability to provide the care needed.

Left-behind children have to pay excessive fees to study in under-resourced and under-staffed rural schools. Often, their only option is to leave after completing middle-school (or even earlier) and become migrant workers themselves. The government has built more boarding schools in rural areas to improve the lot of left-behind children but these schools are often more concerned with social control than education.

Migrant children in the cities suffer from systematic discrimination and exclusion from social welfare, healthcare and education. Migrant children and their mothers suffer from noticeably higher levels of disease and preventable death simply because they do not have the same level of access to healthcare as their local neighbours. They have to pay up to three times as much as locals to receive the same level of education or alternatively study at inferior quality migrant schools. And even if they do get a decent education in the city and wish to go on to university, rules dictate that they have to return to their “hometown” to take the entrance examination.

Migrants in urban areas are both geographically and socially segregated from the local population. Migrant children often have to study in segregated schools because of resistance to integration from local parents who fear that including migrants in local schools would hamper their own children’s educational development. This segregation has only reinforced suspicion and misunderstanding between the two groups.

Since the issue first came to national prominence early this decade, the Chinese government has promulgated a wide range of laws, regulations and directives (mainly related to education) to address the problems faced by these children and their parents. Many of these initiatives could have been effective if they had been implemented in full. However many programmes were stymied at the local level. Because local governments are almost entirely responsible for funding schools, healthcare and social welfare services, they have been reluctant to give migrants and their children full and unfettered access to these services.

The level of access to education and healthcare for migrant children has undeniably improved over the last few years. However all these improvements have been piecemeal, have often created an additional financial burden for migrant workers, and can be rescinded at any time at the discretion of local governments. What is needed is wide-ranging and systemic reform to the hukou and social welfare systems.

On 2 March 1992, long before the recent flood of legislation and government initiatives, Beijing ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which obliges the government to safeguard the rights of children “within its jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child’s or his or her parent’s or legal guardian’s race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status.” (Article 1).

CLB contends that this fundamental principle should be the cornerstone of the Chinese government’s policies towards the children of migrant workers. It should take strong and enforceable measures to end the discrimination, exclusion and injustices suffered by the children of migrant workers and ensure that they no longer have to pay the price for China’s economic development. To this end, CLB recommends:

The link between social services and the hukou system should be severed. The discrimination faced by migrant children is tied up with the complex social, economic and political structure of China. The ultimate solution is to reduce the disparity between urban and rural areas in terms of socio-economic development and welfare provisions, and to eventually abolish the hukou system. This, of course, is a long-term process. In the meantime, the government should make sure that the rights of children are not compromised by their residence status. The link between social services and hukou for children should be severed. All children should be entitled to the same rights to health and education services, social advancement and social participation. All barriers, such as the link between university entrance examinations and the hukou system should be abolished.

Urban governments should take responsibility for welfare provision. The parents of migrant children make a vital contribution to the economic development of the cities. Urban authorities should shoulder the responsibility for these children’s welfare. Urban governments are clearly more able, in terms of financial resources, than poorer rural ones to shoulder this burden. Rather than urging rural and urban governments to share their responsibilities, the central government should clearly place the onus for providing social services for migrant children on urban governments. Crucially, urban governments should not limit access to social services only to the children of workers in stable employment, to those with high qualifications or who meet the requirements of the city’s population policies.

Integrating migrant children into the urban environment. The measure outlined by the State Council and the Ministry of Education in 2003 to improve the education of migrant children contained important provisions related to social integration. These need to be actively enforced at the local level. Rather than providing migrant children with mere formal education, urban governments should initiate extra-curricular and social programmes aimed at increasing their understanding of the city and bolstering their sense of belonging. Subsidies should be given to migrant children who have financial difficulties to participate in such programmes. Urban children and their parents should be encouraged to be more tolerant and accepting of their migrant classmates.

Migrant schools should be properly funded. As a stop-gap measure before migrant children are fully integrated into the state system, local government subsidies for privately-run migrant schools should be included in the city’s annual budget. Moreover, the subsidies should be sufficient to cover all of the students’ costs, so that they do indeed receive a free compulsory education, and ensure that qualified teachers in the private sector receive salary and benefits comparable to those in the state sector. Urban governments should not just close down non-approved schools but rather help them improve their facilities and teaching standards.

Increase government involvement in and commitment to left-behind children’s programmes. Local and central governments should both increase their commitment in terms of financial and human resources to develop and manage programmes to help left-behind children. Apart from constructing and renovating school buildings, the software of education, such as the standard of teaching needs to be greatly improved; better qualified rural teachers should be recruited, salaries should be raised and, crucially, paid on time. Rural schools should employ qualified counsellors to look after the psychological needs of left-behind children. Stand-in parents should be properly screened, given proper training and the time off work they need to look after their charges. Moreover, their rights and obligations as stand-in parents should be clearly defined.

Hastening economic development and improving social welfare in rural areas. The government’s four trillion yuan economic stimulus package to counteract the impact of the international financial crisis in China includes public construction and environmental projects that will create much needed rural employment. However, since a significant proportion of rural income is currently derived from migrant labour, rural incomes are likely to fall this year as a result of the mass lay-offs in the cities. It is essential, therefore, that the government investment in rural social welfare increases and that a transparent breakdown of the funds used be available to the public. In particular, a much greater effort will be needed to stamp out the misappropriation of funds earmarked for education and healthcare.

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