Chinese Migrants: Homeward Bound

Chinese crowds

As the Chinese Lunar Year of the Snake ends and the Year of the Horse begins, the first half of the world’s largest annual migration – an estimated 3.6 billion journeys over the holiday period – will draw to a close as hundreds of millions complete their journeys home to spend the festival with close relatives. 

Many of these journeys are undertaken by the country’s migrant workers:  people, mostly from rural communities, who have left for China’s rapidly growing cities in search of better paid jobs.  There are 260 million such workers in China and this is often the only time of year they get to see their families. Many make heroic efforts to get home in the face of extreme competition for train and bus tickets, but not all can do so.

And not all want to do so. This year, an online survey found that around 40% of migrant workers are not going home for the New Year. Many cite the difficulties and high cost of travel at this time, others that it is easier to find a new job or earn extra money when fellow workers have left.  However, the most likely reason is that many are embarrassed to return home admitting that they have saved so little money to support their families who have stayed behind.

Difficulties of the Migrant Worker

Average monthly salaries for migrant workers in the major cities are around RMB 2,500 (US$ 400).  This is much higher than the average rural income of RMB 700 per month, but after housing costs – which can absorb 75% of a migrant worker’s income – and other living expenses, the migrant worker may actually be worse off than his/her rural counterpart.

Moreover, under China’s household registration (or hukou) system, the migrant worker will also normally still be deemed to be resident in his place of birth and therefore at a disadvantage in terms of access to social services, such as medical care (only 17% have medical insurance), when working away from home. Worse, for both administrative and financial reasons, it is often difficult or impossible for the workers to bring their children with them.

“Left-Behind” Children

This has led to the development of a phenomenon known here as the “left-behind” children.  Around one in five children in China now falls into this category and of these over two-thirds are under the age of 12. These children often stay with elderly relatives, for whom they end up having also to care, taking on full household responsibilities despite their young age.

A recent survey pointed out that 75% of left-behind children only see their parents once a year, and the biggest concern of 84% of them was that their parents should come back as soon as possible. 42% felt that they had no-one to talk to when they felt bad, and 34% felt that they received not enough care in their daily lives.

For such children, the Chinese New Year is the time that they are most likely to get to see their parents. But for some, there is only disappointment. Recently the press reported the heart-rending story of a 9-year old who, on learning that his mother would not be home for a second year running, committed suicide. Other kids in a similar situation have tried secretly to make journeys themselves to find their distant parents.

The Chinese are a very family-oriented society and the motivation that has propelled most migrant workers to leave their homes, and often their children, is to provide a better future for them. However, the cost-benefit equation is beginning to tip again as migrant worker salaries rise more slowly, the cost of living in large cities increases, and the personal costs to ruptured families becomes more obvious.

Relief in Smaller Inland Cities?

The government’s aim to promote the growth of the “smaller” inland cities is also fueling more demand for migrant workers in those areas, thus providing migrant workers with a new option: slightly lower salaries, significantly lower living expenses and the option to work nearer to home. Moreover, many such cities are being encouraged to experiment with easing the hukou policy to allow outsiders to relocate with their families to such cities.

Hopefully this will provide a better solution for many migrant worker families, so that by the time the Year of the Horse ushers in the Year of the Goat in February 2015, many more left-behind children will be seeing their parents more frequently, and will enjoy a truly happy Chinese New Year.


About Tim Mathieson

Tim, Chief Operating Officer of Willis China, is a graduate in Chinese studies with more than 30 years’ experienc…
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