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China's migrant workers seek answers closer to home

There are an estimated 262 million rural migrant workers in China. They have been the engine of China's spectacular economic growth over the last two decades but, because of the household registration (hukou) system, they are still marginalized and discriminated against. Their children have limited access to education and healthcare and can be separated from their parents for years on end.

Although some improvements have been made over the last few years, the latest data analysed by China Labour Bulletin shows that migrant workers are still overwhelmingly employed in low income sectors such as manufacturing, construction, transport and services, and live in poor quality housing. They are still most at risk from work-related injury and disease and have very limited access to social insurance.

One of the most obvious trends over the last five years has been for migrant workers to seek employment closer to home. In provinces such as Henan and Sichuan that have traditionally exported rural labour to the southern coastal provinces, there are now more local rural labourers employed inside their home province than out. Their main reasons for returning are increasing wage levels, the lower cost of living and a greater sense of belonging at home. But perhaps the most powerful driving force for migrant workers is the desire to be closer to their children.

The latest statistics show that the number of children left behind by migrant worker parents had increased to 61 million by 2010, about 38 percent of all rural children. Moreover, the well-documented problems related to the long-term separation of left-behind children from their parents continue to be manifest. Left-behind children are far more vulnerable to crime and abuse, and often develop psychological and behavioural problems.

As a result, in the late 2000s, more and more parents decided to take their children to the city with them. The number of migrant children in China's cities rose by 41 percent over the five years from 2005 to 2010 to reach 35.8 million. However, once they got to the city, children from the countryside faced widespread prejudice and limited access to public schools and healthcare.

In some urban districts today, only about 50 percent of migrant children can find a place in a public school. In other cities such as Beijing, the authorities are shutting down the private schools that had previously provided much-needed places for excluded migrants, leaving parents with little option but to send their children "home" to complete their schooling.

Despite long-standing calls for reform or even abolition of the hukou system, there has so far only been piecemeal reform at the local level, with individual cities relaxing restrictions for certain migrant workers; mostly those from the same province and those who have already made a demonstrable contribution to the local economy.

This approach seems destined to continue for the foreseeable future as the authorities have made it clear that any hukou reform in China must first take into account the 'load-bearing ability" of individual cities. In other words, access to resources will continue to be restricted in many major cities and more and more migrant workers will look at the possibility of working closer to home.

CLB's study on Migrant workers and their children is published today in the Resource Centre, a section on the website designed to provide those relatively new to China with an overview of key labour issues in the county. Other topics include wages, employment discrimination, social security, labour dispute resolution and work-related injury compensation.