What has the Chinese government done to protect the rights of migrant workers' children?

Since the issue of left-behind and migrant children first came to national attention about five years ago, the Chinese government has introduced a wide range of directives and initiatives designed to ease the plight of one of society's most disadvantaged groups.

In the final part of CLB's three-part study on the children of migrant workers, published today, we examine the government's response to this pressing issue, and suggest that many central government initiatives could have been effective had they been implemented in full. However local rural governments simply did not have the resources to establish better schools, healthcare and social welfare services, while more affluent urban governments were extremely reluctant to give migrants and their children full and unfettered access to their social services.

The study concludes that only long-term solution is wide-ranging and systemic reform of the social welfare system and the abolition of China's antiquated and discriminatory household registration (hukou 戶口) system. In the interim, CLB argues, the link between hukou and social services for children should be eliminated and urban governments should be made wholly responsible for the provision of social welfare to migrant children.

The main driving force behind the migration of labour in China is the disparity in terms of economic and social development between rural and urban areas. Despite the government's massively increased investment in poor rural areas over the last decade, the gap between the city and the countryside has continued to increase to the point where average incomes for workers in coastal cities are ten times higher than for farmers in inland areas. Simply increasing investment in rural areas is not enough. The government will, in addition, have to deepen reform of the taxation and social welfare systems before the gap between the city and the countryside is narrowed.

For a first-hand account of the vast gulf between the modern city and the "medieval" countryside, see CLB's translation of a blog written by Xiao Sanlang, a young man working in Shanghai who returned to his home village in Anhui for the 2009 Spring Festival. The blog examines the rites of passage in a rural village, land ownership, village politics and rural culture, and focuses in particular on education, lamenting the poor quality of rural schools and the limited prospects for students.

This issue was further discussed in CLB Director Han Dongfang's interview with primary and middle school teachers from rural Chongqing who staged a strike over higher pay in late October and early November 2008. Under Chinese law, teachers are supposed to have the same salary and benefits as civil servants but in Chongqing's rural schools they receive about one third of government employees' salaries.

In other recent interviews, Han Dongfang talked to the trade union chairwoman at a Chengdu bus company who initially criticized her members for going on strike but later acknowledged the union should better represent workers' interests, and a group of steel workers laid-off and rehired as temporary supply workers – one of many methods now used by unscrupulous companies to get around provisions of the Labour Contract Law.

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