Migrant workers and their children

There were an estimated 287 million rural migrant workers in China in 2017, making up more than one third of the entire working population. Migrant workers have been the engine of China’s spectacular economic growth over the last three decades but they remain marginalized and subject to institutionalized discrimination. Their children have limited access to education and healthcare and can be separated from their parents for years on end.


Rural migrant workers (农民工) are workers with a rural household registration who are employed in an urban workplace. They are not necessarily from rural areas. Many grew up or were even born in the city. They consider the city to be home but, because of the inflexibility of the household registration system, they remain classified as rural migrants.


Household registers have been used by the Chinese authorities for millennia to manage taxation and control migration. The current household registration (Hukou 户口) system was formally introduced by the Communist government in 1958 and was designed to facilitate three main programs: government welfare and resource distribution, internal migration control, and criminal surveillance. Each town and city issued its own domestic passport or hukou, which gave residents access to social welfare services in that jurisdiction. Individuals were broadly categorised as a "rural" or "urban" based on their place of residence. Moreover, the hukou was hereditary so children whose parents held a rural hukou would also have a rural hukou no matter where they are actually born.

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, as hundreds of millions of young men and women from the countryside poured into the factories and construction sites of China’s coastal boom towns. In many cities, such as Shenzhen and Dongguan, the population of migrant workers quickly overtook that of the local urban population.

As migrant workers poured into the cities, it became clear that hukou restrictions on internal migration were not only unenforceable but counter-productive to social and economic development. But it was only in 2003, after the tragic death in police custody of a young migrant worked named Sun Zhigang that the barriers to migration started to come down. Sun had been detained by police in Guangzhou 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 the freedom of movement in place at the time. In many smaller cities, hukou restrictions have gradually been dismantled but the system itself is still very much in place. Indeed, as the urban population continues to grow, the authorities in major cities such as Beijing are now actually making it more difficult for migrant workers and their families to get access to social services. See below for more details.

Migrant worker population growth

According to the most recent annual survey of migrant workers conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), there were 281.7 million rural labourers working in China's cities in 2016,making up about 35 percent of China’s total workforce of around 807 million. Although the total number of migrant workers has increased steadily over the last decade, the annual rate of growth has declined noticeably from 5.5 percent in 2010 to just 1.3 percent in 2015 and 1.5 percent in 2016. China’s migrant worker population is expected to grow at current levels or level off in the next few years..

Migrant workers are typically divided in the NBS survey into short and long-distance migrants, with short-distance migrants usually working in a city close to their home area. The number of short-distance (本地) migrants increased by 3.4 percent in 2016 to reach 112 million, while the number of long-distance (外出) migrants rose by a slower rate, just 0.3 percent, to stand at about 169 million. See chart below. There is now a tendency for migrant workers to seek employment closer to home as smaller cities open up and major cities such as Beijing impose even more restrictions on migrant workers and their families.

Population of Migrant Workers in China 2010-2016 (millions)

Age, gender and education

The overall gender balance of migrant workers in 2016 was 65.5 percent male, 34.5 percent female. However the gender gap narrowed somewhat for short-distance migrants (63 percent male, 37 percent female) largely because the stronger family and social support structures in smaller cities closer to home allow both parents to work. Today, as fewer rural migrants enter the workforce and older migrants remain employed, there is a clear trend towards an ageing working population. The proportion of workers aged 16 to 30-years-old fell from 42 percent in 2010 to 32 percent in 2016, while the proportion of workers over 40-years-old has jumped from 34 percent in 2010 to 46 percent last year, with workers over 50-years-old accounting for 19 percent of the total. See chart below.

Age distribution of migrant workers 2010-2016 (%)

The ageing problem is particularly severe in the construction industry, where in some cities it is virtually impossible to find any workers under 30-years-old. And this ageing trend is likely to continue in the future as younger workers shun what is a dangerous, insecure and poorly paid occupation, and older employees are forced to stay on the job because they have no pension or any other form of social safety net to support them in their old age.

While the majority of migrant workers still only have a middle school education, 26.4 percent do now have some form of higher education, including 9.4 percent who went to college. Long-distance migrants tend to be better educated with 12 percent attending college. China mandates nine years of compulsory education (six years of primary school and three years of middle school) however, about 14 percent of the current migrant worker population failed to even graduate from middle school.

Employment patterns and wages

The vast majority of rural migrant workers are still employed in low-paid jobs in manufacturing, construction and services. See chart below.

Employment of migrant workers by sector 2016

The proportion of migrant workers employed in manufacturing has fallen from 36.7 percent in 2010 to 30.5 percent in 2016, reflecting both the decline in China’s manufacturing industry, the relocation of low cost, labour intensive factories to smaller Southeast Asian countries, and more opportunities for migrant workers in other sectors. The proportion of workers in the construction industry increased from 16.1 percent in 2010 to 22.3 percent in 2014, as trillions of yuan was spent on infrastructure projects and residential and commercial property development. However, with the end of the building boom in 2015, the number of migrant workers in construction began to decline, dropping further in 2016 to stand at about 55 million or 19.7 percent of the total.

Wage levels for migrant workers have increased steadily over the last decade with the average monthly wage in 2016 standing at 3,275 yuan, up 6.6 percent from the previous year. In most cities however a salary of around 3,000 yuan a month is far from being a living wage. The highest-paid sectors for migrant workers in 2016 were transport and logistics (3,775 yuan per month) and construction (3,687 yuan per month), while those employed in household services, sales, hotel and catering services were the lowest paid, earning just over 2,800 yuan per month. See chart below.

Working conditions and benefits

In addition to low pay, migrant workers generally have to work long hours and have little job security. Long-distance migrants worked on average 25.2 days a month, and 8.7 hours a day in 2016. The vast majority (84 percent) worked in excess of 44 hours per week, about the same levels as in 2015.

The 2008 Labour Contract Law mandated the signing of formal employment contracts with employees but, in 2016, only 35 percent of migrant workers had such a contract. Moreover, the percentage of migrant workers with formal employment contracts has actually declined in the last two years from 38 percent in 2014. The proportion of short-distance migrant workers with a contract was even lower, standing at just 31 percent in 2016, suggesting that the enforcement of labour laws is even less rigid in China’s inland provinces and smaller cities.

The non-payment of wages is by far the most important cause of labour disputes in China, and was a factor in 76 percent of all collective worker actions recorded on CLB’s Strike Map in 2016. According to the NBS survey, a total of 2.37 million migrant workers suffered from wage arrears in 2016, a decrease of 14 percent compared with the previous year. However, the average amount of money owed to workers increased by nearly 17 percent to reach 11,433 yuan per person, or a total of 27 billion yuan. Both CLB’s Strike Map and the NBS survey show that wage arrears, while most common in the construction industry, occur in all sectors employing migrant workers.

Despite some improvements in social insurance coverage over the last five years, the proportion of migrant workers with a pension or any form of social insurance is still at a very low level, around half the national average. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security reported that in 2017 only about 22 percent of migrant workers had a basic pension or medical insurance, 27 percent had work-related injury insurance, and just 17 percent had unemployment insurance, an increase over the five years since 2012 of 36.5 percent, 24.6 percent, 9.3 percent and 81 percent respectively. It is estimated that around 40 million workers in China’s most dangerous profession, construction, do now have work-related injury insurance but this is largely because employer contributions are comparatively low and, given the high rate of accidents on construction sites, it benefits the employer to pay for work-related injury insurance. For more details, see our section on the social security system in China.

Geographical distribution and migration patterns

The flow of rural migrant labour is often portrayed as a simple unidirectional migration from villages in the under-developed inland provinces of central and western China to large cities in the more economically developed coastal provinces of the east. The reality is far more complex. NBS figures for 2016 show that just over half (56.7 percent) of China’s migrant workers were employed in the eastern provinces, 20.4 percent worked in the central regions, and 19.5 percent in the west, with another 3.2 percent in the northeast. The fastest growth rates in rural migrant labour (around 5.3 percent) were in the west and northeast.

Moreover, it is important to note that less than half of all long-distance migrants actually move out of their home province. Of the 169 million long-distance migrants, 77 million (45 percent) were categorized as trans-province migrants while nearly 93 million stayed within their own province. Even in the traditional migrant exporting region of central China, around 24 million long-distance migrants stayed within their home province.

Around two thirds of long-distance migrants move to smaller or medium-sized cities, those at prefecture-level or below. NBS figures from 2015 show that less than 23 percent of migrant workers were employed in provincial capitals such as Guangzhou and Chengdu, while just 8.6 percent worked in major municipalities such as Beijing and Shanghai. See chart below.

The cost of living

For migrant workers, the cost of living in major cities can be significantly higher than smaller cities closer to home, particularly since migrant workers have to pay more for healthcare, social services and schooling for their children (see below). A survey by the Shanghai-based E-House China R&D Institute in 2017 showed that rent can account for more than half a worker’s income in China’s major cities. In the national capital Beijing, for example, the average rent is 2,748 yuan a month, equal to 58 percent of average income in the city or 100 percent of a low-paid migrant workers’ income. Many migrant workers in Beijing can only afford to live in cramped, tiny apartments on the outskirts of town, which as the Daxing fire of 18 November 2017 tragically illustrated can often be deathtraps.

More and more migrant workers are realizing that the cost of big city life combined with long-term separation from their family and community is simply not worth itt. 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 of 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 under 18-years-of-age who were 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 by themselves. Both groups lacked emotional support and care from their parents, it said.

More recent surveys obtained similar results. A survey of 2,130 left-behind children conducted at the end of 2014 by the non-governmental organization On the way to School (上学路上) found that 15 percent of children could go a whole year without seeing their parents, even at Spring Festival. Even telephone contact was limited; about 25 percent of respondents got just one call every three months and four percent got one phone call a year. And a 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. Some 61 percent of left-behind children interviewed said their parents telephoned “sometimes” and 28.6 percent responded “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.

However, the recent surveys of left-behind children quoted above showed that many children still lack the emotional and psychological support they need for a healthy upbringing.

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. Indeed, the 2014 survey of migrant workers showed that the proportion of long-distant migrant workers who moved as a whole family unit was still only around 21 percent, just one percentage point higher than in 2010.

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.

Urbanization, Hukou reform and social justice

The government expects that around 60 percent of China’s population will be living in cities by the year 2020. The government also hopes to raise of proportion of citizens with an urban household registration from about 40 percent in 2016 to 45 percent of the total population in 2020. Based on a projected population of 1.42 billion, this would bring the number of people with an urban hukou in 2020 to 639 million, or an increase of nearly 90 million over five years.

Even if this target is attainable, which is doubtful, China’s new urban residents will not necessarily be better off. In return for giving up their rural land rights, new urban residents will usually be granted a place in a small or medium-sized city with limited social services in the same province as their previous rural residence. Up until now, the only cities that have been really willing to relax hukou restrictions have been rapidly growing county and prefectural cities that need new residents and do not have a substantial and entrenched urban population that sees rural migrants as a threat to their resources. Moreover, many newly urbanized families were only granted hukous after their rural land was forcibly acquired by local governments in league with major property developers.

Some provincial capitals such as Guangzhou do grant around 100,000 urban hukous each year but again nearly all the beneficiaries come from Guangdong. Migrants from nearby provinces like Hunan and Sichuan still struggle to get a Guangzhou hukou. The situation is even worse in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai that have both announced population caps of 23 million and 25 million people respectively. Beijing has already taken draconian measures to remove its so-called “low-end population” (低端人口) and Shanghai might have to resort similarly coercive tactics if it is to achieve that target.

Most experts agree that trying to maintain the integrity of major urban centres by limiting population growth is both futile and counterproductive, especially in cities like Shanghai with a rapidly aging population and a low birth rate that will require a constant influx of young migrants to keep the local economy vibrant and competitive.

The 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 back in March 2012 described the system as “morally indefensible in today’s China,” adding that:

Reform for the hukou system would represent a timely investment in human capital that's 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.

Six years later, however, hukou reform is no longer very high on the political agenda. Indeed, the topic was not mentioned once during General Secretary Xi Jinping’s address to the 19th Party Congress in October 2017.

It seems likely that any further relaxation of hukou restrictions will come not from the central government but from the smaller provincial cities that have always been at the forefront of hukou reform, and will be determined by the need of those cities for land and other resources rather than any desire for social justice.

That said, one crucial obstacle to hukou reform, the staunch opposition of China’s police force, might be on the wane now that technological advances such as facial recognition software and social credit scores have given the police additional and potentially much more effective means of social control.

At some point in the future, the central government in Beijing may summon the courage and political will to push through hukou reform. But until that point, a far more pressing need is for a genuine commitment to enhancing social justice, reducing the gap between rich and poor, and increased social mobility. In this regard, China Labour Bulletin recommends that the government adopts the following policy initiatives:

  • Ensure that all children living in the same city have equal access to public health and education services, and the same opportunities for social advancement and social participation, regardless of their hukou status.
  • Invest in affordable and accessible housing so that rural migrants and their families are not forced to live in over-crowded, poorly constructed and often hazardous apartment buildings in remote shanty towns. So far, only Hangzhou has proposed any initiatives in this regard with a pledge to build 40,000 units by 2020.
  • Central and provincial governments should provide subsidies to small and medium-sized cities to build hospitals and other essential public services for the local population and surrounding rural areas, thereby reducing the need for rural residents to travel to major cities for medical treatment.
  • Subsidies should also be available for the development of rural education. Local governments should build new schools and attract better qualified teachers with higher salaries and benefits.
  • All sectors of society, government, schools, media and civil society organizations should focus on accelerating urban integration and resisting attempts to label migrant workers as “low-end population.”
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