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Migrant workers and their children

Migrant workers and their children

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 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.

Urbanisation and the household registration system

In 1958, the Chinese government formally reintroduced the household registration (Hukou 户口) system. Household registers had been used by Chinese authorities for millennia to facilitate taxation and control migration. This new hukou system was designed by the Communist government with three main purposes in mind: government welfare and resource distribution, internal migration control and criminal surveillance. Each town and city issued its own hukou, which entitled only its registered residents access to social welfare services in that jurisdiction. Individuals were broadly categorised as "rural" or "urban" based on their place of residence. Moreover, the hukou was hereditary: children whose parents held a rural hukou would also have a rural hukou irrespective of their place of birth.

The hukou system was supposed to ensure that China’s rural population stayed in the countryside and continued to provide the food and other resources that urban residents needed. However, as the economic reforms of the 1980s gained pace, what the cities needed most was cheap labour. And so began what is often described as one of the greatest human migrations of all time. Hundreds of millions of young men and women from the countryside poured into the factories and construction sites of coastal boom towns. In many cities such as Shenzhen and Dongguan, the population of migrant workers now far outstrips those with an urban hukou. And in China as a whole, migrants now make up about one third of the total urban population. See graph below.

Actual urban population and population with an urban hukou in China – as a percentage of total population in China

Source: Updated from Chan, Kam Wing, 2012. “Crossing the 50 Percent Population Rubicon: Can China Urbanize to Prosperity?” Eurasian Geography and Economics, Vo1.53, No.1, pp.63-86.

As migrant workers flooded into the cities, it became clear that hukou restrictions on internal migration were not only unenforceable but counter-productive to social and economic development. In 2003, a young migrant named Sun Zhigang was killed in police custody in Guangzhou while awaiting repatriation to his home town. He had been detained by police simply because he did not have a temporary resident permit as required by law. The public outcry at Sun’s death led to the abolition of many of the most egregious restrictions on freedom of movement in place at the time. However, the hukou system remains in effect and still bars migrant workers from access to social welfare, healthcare and schooling for their children in the cities.

Migrant workers

Rural migrant workers (农民工) are those with a rural hukou who are employed in an urban workplace. Traditionally migrant workers have travelled long distances from poor inland provinces to the more economically developed coastal provinces in search of employment in factories, construction sites and service industries. While that pattern still holds true today, increasingly however, migrant workers are finding employment in towns and cities closer to home.

According to the annual survey conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics (全国农民工监测调查报告), there were 262 million rural labourers working in China's cities in 2012, a four percent increase over the previous year. The number of short-distance (本地) migrants increased by 5.4 percent to reach 99 million and the number of long-distance (外出) migrants rose by three percent to 163 million. See chart below. Typically, short distance migrants are those working in their home area or county.

Population of Migrant Workers in China (2008-2012)

Source: National Bureau of Statistics

About 40 percent of migrant workers are under 30 years old. Factory bosses have traditionally sought younger workers to stand on the production line, believing they are more capable of performing long, tedious shifts, day in and day out. Moreover, young single workers can be housed in cheap, cramped dormitories on site that are unsuitable for older employees with children. However, the declining birthrate in China has meant that fewer young people are entering the workforce and those seeking jobs do not necessarily want to work in a factory. That has led to significant labour shortages in Guangdong and other coastal provinces, forcing employers to hire more workers in their 40s and 50s. See chart below.

Age distribution of migrant workers (%)

Source: National Bureau of Statistics

Today’s younger migrant workers are usually the offspring of migrant workers who sought work in the cities during the 1980s and 90s. Very few consider themselves to be in any way “rural” or even “migrant.” Many grew up, or were even born in the city, and have never thought of returning to their hukou determined “hometown”. The vast majority of young migrant workers has never worked on a farm and would have no idea what to do on a farm if they got there. Few young migrant workers have any agricultural training. See chart below.

Percentage of migrant workers with agricultural training (by age)

Source: National Bureau of Statistics

More than one third of migrant workers are employed in the manufacturing sector, although numbers have declined slightly over the last five years. Significantly more migrants have found jobs in construction over the last five years as infrastructure and housing projects picked up again after the global economic crisis of 2008. The percentage of workers employed in transport and other services have remained fairly constant over the last five years. See chart below.

Employment of migrant workers by sector (%)

Source: National Bureau of Statistics

Income and living conditions

Wages for most migrant workers have increased over the last five years. However, official statistics show that wages in the industries that most migrant workers are employed in are lower than the national average wage. Wages in transportation and construction were the highest at 2,735 yuan and 2,654 yuan per month on average, while those in catering, household services and manufacturing were often much lower. See the section Wages in China for more details.

Low incomes mean that few migrant workers can afford to buy housing or even rent an apartment for themselves in the city. Around one third of migrant workers live in overcrowded dormitories provided by employers, although that proportion has decreased over the last five years as more and more workers share rented apartments near their workplace or even live at home if it is not too far from their place of employment. See chart below.

Migrant worker accommodation (%)

Source: National Bureau of Statistics

In the 2010s, the central and regional governments across China announced ambitious infrastructure and urban renewal projects designed in part to provide affordable housing for low-income city dwellers. In Sichuan, for example, the provincial government plans to build 30,000 low-rental public apartments in 2013, more than 30 percent of the total housing supply. In many such developments however, the land being redeveloped for affordable housing is the very land currently occupied by migrant workers in cheap, poor quality buildings erected by local land owners. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the land earmarked for redevelopment will actually produce affordable housing. All too often the so-called urban villages occupied by migrant workers have been replaced by luxury housing and commercial developments, forcing migrants further and further away from the city centre.

Work-related injuries and illnesses

Official figures suggest that work safety is improving in China but the numbers of work-related accidents and deaths remain disturbingly high, and migrant workers still account for a majority of victims.

In 2012, there were 71,983 work-related deaths in China, down 4.7 percent from the previous year, and the number of workplace accidents shrank 3.1 percent to around 330,000. Migrant workers were the victims in 70 percent of these cases. In the coal mine industry there were 1,384 deaths in 2012, according to the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS). Although the country’s death rate for producing one million tons of coal has declined to 0.35, it is still ten times the rate in the United States," SAWS spokesman Huang Yi said.

Accident and death rates remain high largely because of lax enforcement of work safety regulations by local government officials and the subordination of safety to productivity and profit by managers. Few migrant workers are fully aware of the potential hazards in their workplace and hardly any have received adequate training. According to a study on migrant workers' safety in the construction sector in 2012, 95.9 percent of those surveyed had not received any formal vocational training.

There are an estimated six million workers in China suffering from the deadly lung disease pneumoconiosis, and the vast majority are poor migrant workers. Most contracted the disease working in mines, construction sites and stone processing factories in the 1990s and 2000s and only a small proportion have received the compensation they are entitled to under the law. The legal and regulatory system in China, which demands that workers prove an employment relationship in order to get compensation, has effectively disqualified millions of victims because they never signed a formal labour contract with their employer. See CLB’s research report Time to Pay the Bill: China’s obligation to the victims of pneumoconiosis, for more details.

Tide of return

The traditional flow of rural migrant workers in China has been from relatively under-developed central inland provinces to more economically developed coastal provinces such as Guangdong and Zhejiang.

Official statistics for 2012 show that, in general, rural migrant workers from eastern China tend to work almost exclusively within their home provinces. The majority of migrant workers from central China on the other hand seek employment further afield, with 66.2 percent travelling outside the province for work. See charts below

Place of employment for migrant workers from central (left) and eastern (right) China (%)





Source: National Bureau of Statistics

However, there are signs that the tide is beginning to turn. As the central provinces develop more rapidly, more and more migrant workers are finding employment and business opportunities closer to home. The percentage of cross-provincial migrants from central China actually fell by one percent last year while cross municipal migration increased by one percent.

The total number of rural migrants from Henan (traditionally a major source of labour export) who were employed outside the province stood at 11.9 million in 2011, while the number of local rural migrant workers employed inside the province increased by 1.3 million to reach 12.7 million. This was the first time the number of migrant workers inside the province exceeded those outside. In the first half of 2012, another 710,000 migrant workers originally from Henan returned to the province, doubling the number of returnees in the previous year, according the provincial Department of Human Resources and Social Security. Likewise in China’s other major labour exporting province, Sichuan, in the first six months of 2012, there were 10.9 million rural migrant workers inside the province, an increase of 15.5 percent, and 10.1 million rural migrants employed outside the province, a decrease of 4.1 percent.

The tide of return has been driven largely by the narrowing wage gap between coastal and inland provinces. The average wage in eastern China was 2,286 yuan per month, compared with 2,257 yuan in central China and 2,226 yuan in the west. See chart below.

Average wages in eastern, central and western China (2008-2012)

Source: National Bureau of Statistics

For migrant workers, the cost of living in eastern coastal cities can be significantly higher than at home, particularly since migrants have to pay more for healthcare, social services and schooling for their children. Moreover, a survey by the Renmin University of China found that over 50 percent of migrant workers experienced helplessness, loneliness and depression whilst living in the city. They also faced daily discrimination and had a low sense of belonging.

Increasingly, more and more migrant workers are realizing that long-term separation from their family and community is simply not worth it. One Sichuan migrant, Hou Jun explained that she returned home because of local employment opportunities, lower living costs and a stronger sense of belonging, adding that:

Many friends around us are actually returning to be with their children back home, who are being raised by their grandparents. They realize that not seeing their children grow up is too great a price to pay, especially now that they might actually be able to save more money for their child's education by going home.

The children of migrant workers

In November 2009, China Labour Bulletin published an in-depth report on the children of migrant workers in China. It outlined the problems faced by children left behind in the countryside and those travelling with their parents to cities and examined in detail the central and local government policies that had been put in place to deal with these issues.

Much of the data for that report was based on the 2005 bi-census. In 2013, the All-China Women's Federation published an updated survey, based on the full-2010 census which showed that both the number of left-behind and migrant children had increased, while most of the problems identified in the CLB’s report remained stubbornly in place.

Left-behind children

The All-China Women’s Federation survey estimated that there were about 61 million children below 18 years of age left behind in the countryside in 2010, accounting for about 22 percent of all children in China, and 38 percent of all rural children. This was an increase of about three million left-behind children over the previous five years.

The majority of the left-behind children (57 percent) lived with their grandparents while three percent (mainly teenagers) lived on their own. Both groups lacked emotional support and care from their parents. A survey in 2011 showed that 64.6 percent of left-behind children communicated with their parents only once a week or once every other week, while another survey conducted in Shandong and published in 2013 found that 75 percent of parents only visited home once a year during the Spring Festival, and five percent visited home once every two to three years. Only 20 percent of parents returned home twice a year or more. Even telephone contact was limited. Some 61 percent of left-behind children interviewed said their parents called “sometimes” and 28.6 percent said they spoke “rarely”.

In most cases, the grandparents of left-behind children are unable to act as effective substitute parents. The All-China Women’s Federation study found that the average age of grandparents looking after left-behind children was 59.2. They were poorly educated; most had only completed primary school, and could not assist the children with their schoolwork. The grandparents focused on the children's physical needs but often overlooked their developmental and emotional needs.

The 2013 survey in Shandong showed that many left-behind children had some kind of psychological or behavioural problems: Some 29 percent of the interviewees were closed off, lacked confidence or had a sense of inferiority, while another 18 percent tended to be antagonistic, impulsive and anti-social.

Figures released by the Ministry of Public Security in 2011 showed that in most crimes involving minors in rural villages, many of those implicated were left-behind children. A study by Guangzhou University indicated that almost 80 percent of young migrant workers with criminal records were once left behind children

The sexual and physical abuse of children is a serious problem in China and left-behind children are particularly vulnerable. In many villages, the vast majority of parents are working away from home, leaving young children prey to older predatory men. And in most cases the children suffer in silence because they are too scared or ashamed to talk to their guardians. A study on the accident rate of left-behind children in Anhui, moreover, revealed that 46.8 percent of left-behind children had sustained injuries, 13 percent higher than that of children living with their parents.

In an attempt to better protect left-behind children and improve their education prospects, in 2013, the Ministry of Education published a circular promoting a registration system for school-aged left-behind children. The registration system requires local authorities to keep individual records for left-behind children, their guardians, parents and schooling. The information would then be used by local governments to better deploy resources and provide better schools. It was hoped the new system would also allow teachers to identify at risk left-behind children and provide them with the help, care and emotional support.

In the meantime, one entrepreneur has stepped into the breach by offering left-behind children comforting stories narrated by well-known television personalities on mp3 players.

Migrant children

The All-China Women’s Federation survey estimated that the number of migrant children in China’s cities was 35.8 million in 2010, which represented a 41 percent increase over 2005. Children from rural families accounted for about 80 percent of that total, or about 28.8 million in all.

Despite the substantial increase in numbers, the problems that were faced by migrant children in the past are still very much in evidence today. Children and their parents still face institutionalized discrimination and highly restricted access to local schools and healthcare.

The Compulsory Education Law states that all children should receive nine years schooling from age six onwards. The law stipulates that “the state, community, schools and families shall… safeguard the right of compulsory education of school-age children and adolescents.” For migrant children however, schooling is not always guaranteed. The National Population and Family Planning Commission, estimated in 2012 that 3.5 percent of migrant children in Beijing do not attend school; 5.1 percent of migrant children in Shanghai, and 5.3 percent of those in Guangzhou were not in school, while the national average was two percent.

Public schools are available to migrant children in theory. However, numerous obstacles are routinely placed in their way. In Guangzhou for example, migrant parents have to produce temporary residence permits, work permits, proof of residence, certificates from their place of origin, and household registration booklets simply in order to apply for a school place for their children. In addition, many schools charge migrant families additional fees. Even though the central government banned “temporary student fees” (借读费) at primary and middle schools, many schools get around the regulations by labelling fees differently. Moreover, high schools can still charge "school selection fees", "sponsorship fees" and other miscellaneous fees. Poor migrant families who cannot afford the extra fees and cannot obtain the necessary documents are effectively excluded from public schooling.

In Beijing, the enrolment rate for migrant students in primary and middle school in 2011 was just 70 percent while in Panyu district, south of Guangzhou, only half the number of migrant children were able to find a place in the public school system. Nationally, China’s 2012 human rights report claims that about 80.2 percent of migrant students attend public schools.

However, those who do manage to secure a place in public schools often face prejudice and discrimination. They are often excluded from extracurricular activities and are generally treated as outsiders. According to one survey, 86.3 percent of migrant children were not friends with local children and 7.1 percent did not have any friends.

Private schools often provide a more familiar environment and some schools are relatively affordable but they are often unregulated, over-crowded and have poor facilities. A report on 300 migrant schools in Beijing for example, showed that only 63 were licensed. Teachers’ wages were low and the workload intense. Many teachers accepted jobs in migrant schools only as a stepping stone to a better position at public schools. As a result teacher turnover was high, disrupting the learning schedules of students.

Moreover, unlicensed migrant schools run the risk of being closed down by the authorities on any pretext. The authorities in Beijing in particular have launched regular campaigns to crack down on unlicensed migrant schools claiming they were unsafe. In reality, many demolished schools had passed numerous checks. The principal of the demolished Tianyuan Primary School for example, pointed out that the school had spent 100,000 yuan on building repairs and fire safety. In many cases, the real reason for school demolition was to make way for new commercial and luxury housing developments.

In most cases, teachers, parents and students were not informed in advance of the school closure and only discovered it when they saw the closure notice posted on the school gate. Hongxing Primary School for example, was closed down in 2011. Within a few hours of the closure being announced, the school buildings were demolished with all the desks, chairs and students' artwork buried in the debris. A survey of migrant families whose children’s schools had been closed found that only 13.6 percent of students had found a place in the public school system, about half went to another migrant school elsewhere in the city, and one third of the students were sent “home” to the countryside.

In 2013, the Chaoyang district government in eastern Beijing launched a new crackdown, pledging to close the 20 remaining migrant schools in the district. Officials claimed they would offer migrant students places in public schools but parents worried that the schools were too far away from their homes and that students had problems adjusting to the new regime. Others said they could not obtain all the necessary documentation to qualify for a school place. In the end, children either ended up at poorer quality private schools commissioned by the local government or returned to their parents’ home town.

The final educational hurdle for migrant children has always been the national university entrance examination. Even if they have spent nine years in an urban school, students nearly always have to take the exam in their home town. And because each region sets its own curriculum, migrant students are at a distinct disadvantage. Moreover, many migrant students who return home to study high-school have trouble adapting to this new environment and simply drop out.

There have been attempts to open up university entrance exams to migrant students and some students can now sit for the entrance exams in the city they are residing in. However the threshold for eligibility is high, making such concessions effectively worthless. It is estimated that more than 20 provinces will relax exam restrictions to some degree but that only a few thousand migrant students will benefit in the whole of 2013. Any further relaxation of the system will meet strong resistance from local students and their parents who are concerned that competition for university places will intensify if more migrant students become eligible.

For migrant families on a low income, the cost of seeing a doctor in China’s commercialized healthcare system can be prohibitively expensive. In 2010, the average medical consultation and medication fee in community clinics was 83 yuan and the average fee for in-patient services was 2,358 yuan. The average monthly income for young migrant workers in 2010 was just 1,660 yuan. This means that many families will only visit a doctor in dire emergencies, when it is often too late. According to a report released by Shaoxing Women and Children’s Hospital in 2011, the death rate of migrant children aged below five was ten percent, compared with about five percent for local children.

The central government has introduced several insurance schemes over the last two decades designed to make healthcare services more affordable for migrant workers. However, the children of migrant workers often fall outside the remit of such schemes. A 2012 survey in Cixi, Zhejiang for example found that 57 percent of migrant children did not have any medical insurance.

There are three main types of medical insurance in China but none of them effectively covers migrant children before they start school.

  • The basic medical insurance scheme for urban employees should cover all urban workers, including migrant workers, but few migrant workers are covered in reality. Indeed, official figures from 2012 show that only 16.9 percent of rural migrant workers employed outside their home area had employee medical insurance, just four percent higher than in 2008. And even those that do have insurance have to present a certificate of study for their children to qualify for benefits and this therefore effectively excludes pre-school migrant children and those in unregistered private schools from the scheme.
  • The urban resident basic medical insurance scheme covers unemployed urban citizens, including students and retirees but not migrant workers.
  • The new rural co-operative medical care scheme is often the only option for poor migrant families with pre-school children. However, this scheme is designed to cover only rural residents and as such it requires individuals to purchase insurance and claim compensation in their hometown, which makes it impractical for migrant workers.

Some regional governments have set up insurance schemes for minors regardless of their hukou. Migrant children in Shenzhen and Hangzhou for example can get the same level of insurance as local children but this is far from a nation-wide practice.

In addition, many regional governments have implemented vaccination schemes that include both local and migrant children. However the take up rate of migrant children is usually lower because their parents are not as well informed about such schemes as local residents.

The high mobility of migrant children can also make it more difficult for the officials to determine their health history and as such some regional governments have pioneered a registration system for migrant children aged under 16 aimed at enhancing communication between children’s home towns and their cities of residence, sharing data on social security, healthcare and education. The registration system usually takes the form of issuing a card which grants migrant children access to social services in cities that have signed up to the scheme.

Hukou reform

A majority of people in China probably agree that the household registration system is archaic and unfair and that rural hukou holders working in the cities should be given greater access to schooling, social and medical welfare benefits.

A Caixin editorial in March 2012 described the system as “morally indefensible in today’s China,” adding that:

Reform of the hukou system would represent a timely investment in human capital that is conducive to economic growth. There is broad consensus that China should move forward with more hukou adjustments. Years have been spent preparing for change, and now the first steps have been taken. It's time for more.

However, there is also considerable resistance from urban residents to relaxation of restrictions. Urban governments often do not have the financial resources to expand provision of social services to include all migrant workers and their families. There is also resistance from the police to wholesale hukou reform, at least until an alternative system of national identity cards can be put in place that can ensure effective surveillance and tracking of criminals.

At present, hukou reform has been limited to piecemeal reform at the local level, with individual regions relaxing restrictions for certain rural migrant workers, in most cases those from the same province and those who have already made a demonstrable contribution to the local economy. That approach seems destined to continue for the foreseeable future.

Despite central government pledges to accelerate hukou reform, the rate and extent of reform will ultimately be dictated by the needs and abilities of individual provinces and cities. At a conference on hukou reform on 15 June 2012, Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun stressed that although hukou reform was in the interests of everyone, it should always take into account the “load-bearing ability” (承载力) of individual cities. In other words, migrants’ access to urban resources will continue to be restricted until urban governments are willing and able to provide welfare services for all.


If, at some point, the central government in Beijing does develop the political will to push through hukou reform, China Labour Bulletin recommends it takes the following action:

  • Decouple the link between the hukou and the provision of social services. All children living in the same city should have the same rights to health and education services, social advancement and social participation.
  • Make urban governments solely responsible for welfare provision in the cities. China’s cities are the clear beneficiaries of rural-urban migration and should no longer pass the costs of welfare provision on to poorer rural governments.
  • Make greater efforts towards urban integration. Social acceptance by the resident urban population is the key to the smooth progress of hukou reform.
  • Invest more in rural education and healthcare. As well as building new schools and health clinics, better qualified teachers and medical staff should be recruited. Salaries should be increased and paid on time.