BEIJING, Feb 10 (IPS) - Life for China's 130 million migrant workers has never been easy. In recent years, however, family life for the ‘liudong renkou' (floating population) was showing signs of improving until the financial crisis.
Migrant workers face low wages, poor working conditions, and in most cases, long periods of separation from their children, who stay at home with relatives, friends or by themselves. Government estimates put the number of ”left-behind” children at 58 million, accounting for 30 percent of all rural children.
But from 2003 onwards, when the government allowed migrant workers to move more freely to urban centres, a growing number of migrants has been taking their children with them to the cities in which they worked. In urban areas, children faced new and different problems namely a lack of government-provided social services û but remained with parents during developmental years.
The financial crisis, at least temporarily, reversed this trend, sending children flooding back to rural provinces. The crisis also highlighted inequalities in China's ‘hukou' system û the government registration card that identifies a person to a certain area where they are entitled to basic services that continues to burden migrant children, whether at home or in cities.
Some 30 million Chinese migrant workers lost their jobs at the onset of the 2008 global financial crisis that affected many export-reliant Asian economies, and many more were forced to accept lower wages and fewer benefits. During last year's Chinese New Year, about 20 million workers went back to their home provinces and did not return to work. In northern Anhui province alone, 6.2 million people went home and stayed during Chinese New Year.
Scores of other migrant parents who remained in the cities for work were forced to send their children back to their home provinces, greatly increasing the demand on social services. Local governments have been unable to cope. In some places, class sizes have doubled to over 100 children and government provisions have worsened, according to a report by ‘China Labour Bulletin'.
Back at home, many children are left with an inadequate support network.
”Having people who care and are able to support you in times of trouble or challenges is very important,” says Judy Shen, founder and director of CAI, a non-profit project by the U.S.-based Promise Foundation that runs character development and life skills programmes for migrant children in Beijing and Shanghai. ”When you're left behind, if you're lucky you have family members who are concerned and loving, but there are some children who are not in that situation. Some children are left alone. They grow up much faster.”
Today, migrant workers are increasingly hesitant to bring children to urban centres, where the effects of the financial crisis still linger, says Zheng Fengtian, a professor in the department of agriculture and rural development at Renmin University of China.
”If they decide to go back (to work in urban areas), many of them would not take the risk of taking their families with them. They may not earn as much as they did before the crisis, and that's if they can find a job at all,” he says.
Meanwhile, migrant workers who decided to stay in the cities with their children encountered a new set of problems. Out of work, migrant families were no longer eligible for many social services, including free public education. Many children were put back in for-profit schools that target migrant children, but many of these are built on abandoned land on city outskirts and in deserted factories.
Not only are children in migrant schools put at an educational disadvantage, but they are at risk of exploitation and abuse. In January, a toddler died in a fire at an unlicensed kindergarten and a school headmaster was arrested for breaking a child's arm.
The financial crisis and its aftermath highlighted one of the central challenges to China's ‘hukou' system: How to provide services to migrant workers outside of the region in which they are registered.
Today, 45 percent of the Chinese population lives in urban centres, but 17 percent do not have local registration cards. Some cities provide basic old-age insurance and health care, but many migrants receive no services whatsoever, according to Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology.
In recent years, some changes have been made to address the challenges faced by migrant families. The central government has mandated that any migrant worker with a stable job can receive social security, and those able to obtain resident permits can rent low-income housing, join local health care plans and receive subsistence allowances and unemployment benefits.
In 2006, the government began allowing migrant children to attend public schools and city governments started taking control of private migrant schools. The Shanghai education commission has said that it will enroll all migrant children in public or government subsidised schools by this year.
In practice, however, many children are not enrolled in public school and indeed many public schools do not welcome them, Zheng says.
According to ‘China Labour Bulletin', the central government's commitment to helping migrant children remains suspect.
In December 2008, the government issued a raft of policies to help migrant workers, but few provisions to aid their children. The government initiatives saddled rural governments with the main responsibility for extending services to migrant families, while urban governments continue to provide services for permanent residents and a small number of skilled migrants.
Another problem involves the ‘gaoka'o, or college entry examination. According the ‘hukou' system, all students must write the examination in the area where their father is registered, even though the test is not universal.
”It's an unsurpassable obstacle,” says Matthew Ryder, a Fulbright scholar who has studied the advantages of public schools for migrant children. ”Even if they went to elementary, middle and high school in the city, they have to go back to their home city to take the gaokao.”
This means many families who have taken children with them to urban centers will end up sending them back at the end of elementary school, or risk putting them at a serious disadvantage when the time comes to write the entrance exam.
”Most migrant workers came with aspirations to improve their children's lives, but without college, the chance to improve is small,” Ryder says.
Prof Hu says many changes still need to be made to the ‘hukou system' to level the playing field for migrant families. Students should be able to take the college entrance exam regardless of where their parents are registered, all employment positions should be open to migrant workers, and a health care system needs to be developed to serve migrant workers outside of their registered area, he says.
But these are big changes, and ones that will not happen overnight.
”We're talking about a billion-plus people. You have to have some form of identification and it's a big system to manage,” CAI's Shen says. ”There's no easy solution.”
(*This feature was produced by IPS Asia-Pacific under a series on the impact of the global economic crisis on children and young people, in partnership with UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific.)