The Migrant Worker’s Stagnant Status

In a recent article, The Economist compares the condition of two generations of migrant workers in China.

Many [migrant workers] have ended up in the same jobs and dormitory beds as their parents did. A survey by the National Bureau of Statistics found that 44% of young migrants worked in manufacturing and another 10% in construction. This and another recent survey suggest that young migrants are dissatisfied with their lot and, despite large pay rises for factory work in recent years, with their salaries, too. Those who grew up partly in the cities with their parents have expectations of a comfortable life that are more difficult to satisfy. Their ambitions frustrated, many do something their parents did not: they leave one job, and find another. And then leave again.

The Centre for Child-Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility, a partner in Beijing of Save the Children Sweden, conducted a survey of young textile workers in five provinces in 2011. A majority had changed jobs at least twice since starting work in the previous two or three years. Nearly half worried about the monotony of their work and despaired of their career prospects. Only 8.6% reported being “comfortable” at work. One worker told researchers: “We have become robots, and I don’t want to be a robot who only works with machines.”

The Economist presents arguments from hukou registration reformers who call for fewer restrictions on migrant workers’ access to education and other changes. But The Economist article indicates that the hukou system will not change soon, because cities need flexible labor. For example:

Shanghai had 170,000 students enrolled in high school in 2010, but there were 570,000 migrant children aged 15 to 19 living in the city who were unable to attend those schools. “The Shanghai government needs to provide its educational resources to the locals first,” says Xu Benliang, deputy director of the Shanghai Charity Education and Training Centre, which teaches young migrants how to get on in life. Mr Xu says the centre tries to tell migrants: “Don’t complain about things that you can’t change.”

While workers may not complain, they can use their mobility and flexibility to their advantage. In another Economist article, some workers in Zhejiang move on to better pursuits, such as part-time acting.

When the migrants arrive in Hengdian they register at a local acting guild. Each day they loiter, playing Chinese chess, hoping to be offered work. The day rate is 40 yuan ($6.30), with 5 yuan per hour overtime. Typically, they play soldiers in an imperial army (see picture).

Jia Jianjun, a 22-year-old from Inner Mongolia, came to Hengdian “to fight for a better life”. He pays 170 yuan a month for a sparse room next to a stinking public toilet. Mr Jia explains that he got fed up with his job as a street vendor selling slippers. He arrived in Hengdian last month to fulfil his childhood dream of acting.

Read more about migrant workers in China, via CDT.