China has some 300 million migrant workers whose living conditions are precarious. Chloé Froissart, Director of the Sino-French Research Center in Social Sciences at Tsinghua University (Beijing), analyses the legal and social situation of this population.

There continue to be huge internal migration flows in China, which stretch across the entire country, from the center and west towards the east coast. What is the estimated number of migrant workers today?

According to the report of the National Bureau of Statistics released in April 2018, there were 286.52 million migrant workers in China in 2017. Their number is continuing to rise (+4.81 million compared to 2016, i.e. an increase of 1.7%). Furthermore, the statistics only account for a part of the population of these migrants, as many are not registered and are therefore not counted. Taking a city like Shanghai as an example: the total population is officially 24 million, but it can sometimes reach 30 million, with an average of 28 million.


These migrant workers for a long time flocked to the large manufacturing centers in southern China. Is this still the case?

An increasing number of Chinese migrants now choose to stay near their homes. The development gap is gradually narrowing between the more rural interior areas – where they traditionally come from – and the richer and more industrialized coastal areas which were their destination. In 2017, migrants in coastal regions earned 13% more than migrants in the center and west regions. But there has been a slowdown in the growth of salaries in these most prosperous regions to 6.4% in 2017, against 21% in 2011, while the increase in salaries in inland China has reached a peak at 7.5%.



Many migrants also choose to move to cities close to their homes for personal reasons. Indeed, many are only children and want to have easy access to their families, as described in a recent article of the magazine Caixin. All these changes are reflected in the proportion of migrants who have left their province of residence to work, compared to those who migrate within their home province. In 2008, 53.3% of migrants were working in another region. This figure fell to 44.7% in 2017.


The “hukou” is this Chinese domestic passport introduced at the time of Mao and is equivalent to a residence permit, which divides China’s population between rural households and non-rural households. What impact has it today on internal migration in China?

Strictly speaking, this system no longer prevents migrations, but it discourages them in the large cities through discriminatory policies. Indeed, the “hukou” continues to be a planning instrument. The first national urbanization plan, published by the State Council in 2014, aims to grant an urban “hukou” to 100 million people by 2020. This will further ease the restrictions of the “hukou” in cities and small cities, while exercising more control over migrations in large Chinese cities.

In these large cities, this domestic passport allows the authorities to implement selective immigration policies: attract rich and highly qualified people who will contribute to the economic development of cities. It does not concern workers who have come from rural areas, but often urban migrants or migrants returning from abroad. However, this policy does not stop migrants from continuing to head for the most economically dynamic centers. So the “hukou” continues to be a powerful factor of discrimination in large Chinese cities.



How has the legal and social (access to healthcare) situation of migrants changed?

Despite the central authorities’ will to universalize access to social rights, this policy comes up against the fact that it is the municipalities which must bear all the costs related to this integration into a system where there is no equalization. Municipalities are therefore encouraged to select candidates for integration. Furthermore, China’s social security is a social insurance system financed by the contributions of employers and employees.

This system is only intended for a part of the migrants who are already well integrated in cities and have a stable job. It leaves aside all those who are too poor, too mobile, who often change employers or who are self-employed workers. Yet paying social security contributions is often considered as a condition of access to other rights in cities, particularly education, in other words, as a duty more than a right. In a context whereby access to social protection is in reality extremely poor in cities, migrants often return to rural areas to get treatment. Finally, when migrants return home, they can only recover their own contributions but lose those of their employers, which remain in the social protection system in cities.


How have the working conditions of this “cheap” manpower improved?

Starting in 2008, a series of laws – the first being the labor law – were published and have considerably strengthened the codification of rights for all workers, including migrants. There has generally been progress in the protection of rights. But it is not done through the institutionalized dispute resolution channels (arbitration, mediation, ruling), which only provide a very poor response to workers’ expectations. It is done under pressure from mobilizations, with a constantly increasing number of strikes. Various forms of collective bargaining have been introduced, mainly focusing on salaries. Independent collective bargaining led by workers with help from NGOs developed between 2011 and 2015 in Guangdong (southern China). It allowed a variety of disputes to be settled, in particular related to relocations. But due to fear of an excessive empowerment of the labor movement, it was stopped in December 2015, with a string of arrests of activists and the closure of several NGOs. Official trade unions are also trying to set up their own model for collective bargaining, particularly on salaries, in order to avoid strikes.


Is education provided for the children of these migrants?

According to the New Citizen Annual Report (2017), approximately 60% of Chinese migrants’ children are unable to follow their parents to the city due to a lack of access to education in urban areas and therefore go to school in rural areas, where educational conditions are not as good. Among those who are able to follow their parents to the city, only 32% go to public schools and benefit from the same educational conditions as non-migrant children. But this requires parents to provide a number of documents, in particular certifying that they have a fixed job and abode and that they pay social security contributions. In other words, public education remains out of reach for children whose parents are poor or work in the informal economy. Finally, approximately 8% of these children are in private schools where tuition fees are high, whereas education is free in public schools.



The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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