"Dagongmei" - Female Migrant Labourers

06 March 2004
Since 1984, when the Regulations on Permanent Residence Registration were loosened, millions of Chinese rural residents have migrated to the urban areas in search of employment. This trend is increasing, as the income gap between the rural and urban areas grows ever larger. While this loosening of the traditional ‘hukou’ system allowed rural residents to migrate, it did not allow them to change their residence or claim any benefits in the cities. The result has been an ever-growing population of migrant labourers without the minimal benefits of residency including medical care, housing or education for their children.

Labour Law enforcement

Migrant labourers and particularly women migrants are vulnerable to exploitation by employers and local officials. Many migrants are unaware of their rights and unable or unwilling to exercise these rights against the powerful forces that control their access to employment. Migrant workers in general, and female migrants in particular who generally work in low paid labour intensive sectors, are often subjected to long overtime hours, poor or unsafe working conditions and frequently are owed back wages by employers.

According the ACFTU, China now has an estimated 94 million migrant workers who are owed over 100 billion Yuan in back wages. Construction is the leading industry for back wages, accounting for over 70 percent of the total. [NOTE 1] The Chinese government undertook a campaign prior to this lunar New Year to seek repayment of back wages for migrant workers. However, while Xinhua reported that some 21.5 billion Yuan had been repaid, accounting for 89 percent of overdue wages in 2003, these statistics are misleading. However, all these figures - the total estimate of migrant workers, the employers’ arrears, and the repaid wages - only apply to migrant workers with contracts. According to Li Jianfei, a law professor at the People’s University and a former Labour Ministry official, up to 90 percent of migrants work without contracts, in violation of Chinese Labour Law. [NOTE 2]

The women migrant workers face job discrimination compared with men by being pushed into lower paying jobs and they also face additional discrimination in the more competitive market environment. The high demand for jobs in the Pearl River Delta allows employers to demand more of employees and provide fewer benefits. The maternity leave and reproductive health benefits that are accorded women in the Chinese Labour Law and other laws are viewed by many employers as added expenses and are often refused. Women are frequently simply fired when they become pregnant.

Female Labour – Young nimble fingers

While the national ratio of male migrant workers to female averages out at two to one (for migrant workers from some provinces, such as Sichuan, Shaanxi and Hubei, the sex ratio was three to one), some 30 to 40 million rural women are estimated to work in the cities. [NOTE 3] In some areas, Guangdong Province for example, the ratio favours women. This corresponds to the dramatic growth in Guangdong Province of unskilled, labour intensive, low paid industries that employee high numbers of women including, garment, toys, footwear and electronics. According to the Guangdong Statistics Bureau, the 2000 national population census estimated that there were over 10 million migrant labourers in Guangdong and women accounted for 60 percent of the total. Many of the women come from poorer provinces situated along the Yangze River such as Sichuan, Hunan, Hubei, Jiangsu and Jiangxi. [NOTE 4]

In addition to the pressing desire to escape poverty in the rural areas and the lack of employment opportunities for women in local rural enterprises, a root cause of young female migration is that women find themselves highly employable in these new low paid manufacturing and labour-intensive industries which do not require skilled workers. For example, this is the dominant type of work for female migrants in the Pearl River Delta, where industries such as electronics, textiles, shoe-production, garments and toy factories in the coastal cities provide young rural women with a better cash income than farming at home. These places attract an enormous number of young females and in some enterprises the sex ratio is one man to every nine women. In the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone in 2003, 70 percent of the 5.5 million migrant workers were females. In the industrial district of Nanshan in Shenzhen which has some 0.4 million migrant workers, 80 percent were females and their average age was 23. [NOTE 5]

According to one study, women workers in the Pearl River Delta fall mainly into the age group of 18 to 22. Nationwide, some 83 percent of female migrant workers are estimated to be under the age of 30, compared to only 55 percent of male migrant workers who are under 30. The difference in ages is due to several factors. Firstly, as married women are less mobile, female migrant workers are younger and more likely to be single than their male counterparts. [NOTE 6] However it is primarily the preferential employment of young rural women who are less likely to get pregnant, more willing to work long hours, have ‘nimble fingers, and who will be less experienced in asking for their statutory rights. In many cases, migrant women sign contracts stating that they will not get pregnant within their period of employment. Younger women also have the added advantage of being able to withstand the continual overtime and lack of rest days that many enterprises offer.

Young women more generally are seen as easier to control than male employees and many migrant women have little knowledge of their rights. Sexual harassment and abuse are frequently reported. The All China Women’s Federation, while supposedly supporting these women workers, has identified these migrant women workers as threats to the stability of marriages and family and has instead launched a campaign in Guangdong against non-resident ‘mistresses’.

Health and Safety at Work

Many thousands of Chinese workers are dying needlessly every year in China because their workplaces do not pay proper attention to the health and safety of their employees. In 2002, reports state that over 14,000 workers died in a total of 13,960 accidents in the manufacturing and mining industries alone. The real figure may be much higher. Thousands of other workers are maimed each year while working on machines without safety guards or in unsafe conditions. This is especially true in smaller privately owned manufacturing enterprises that require their female workers to operate machinery without he proper safety guards or maintenance checks. CLB has monitored many cases of fires, chemical spills, explosions, loss of limb and life in Chinese enterprise, most of which could have been avoided if there had been proper attention and enforcement of existing safety legislation.

Thousands of female migrant workers suffer from dehabilitating or deadly diseases caused by working in factories laden with chemical fumes or toxic dust. Toxic fumes from benzene and chromium are reportedly found in the majority of small factories producing textiles, shoe and toys. Young female migrant workers are especially at risk of chemical poisoning given their predominance in these industries. It is also true that many women, employed for only a few years by a factory or under a short contract will, once developing an industrial disease find themselves out of a job for failing to keep up with the workload. Or, if they return to their home, they may never even realize that their illness is work related. In some cases, women have tried to gain compensation for such illnesses, yet successful cases are rare and time consuming. In part this is due to the lack of national regulations governing state compensation to migrant non-residents in urban areas and the extreme difficulties migrants face in obtaining compensation from employers. Many small enterprises have not joined local insurance schemes and fail to give any medical cover at all.

Reports in the foreign and domestic media of cases of ‘death from overwork’, horrific accidents and appalling working conditions have proliferated along with the economic success of small enterprises and the special economic zones. Despite laws on maximum working hours and wage rates, many migrants are forced to do long hours, often with unpaid and excessive overtime. Wages for many workers are below the minimum wage scale and often workers find themselves with minimal salaries after penalties are imposed for minor infractions such as going to the toilet during working hours or for talking during shifts.

Without the right to form unions and with only the state sanctioned All China Federation of trade Unions (ACFTU) there is little help for workers wanting to protect themselves from unscrupulous employers. The workers themselves have the legal right to stop work in unsafe conditions, but they are never allowed to exercise this right and are denied the right to establish health and safety committees that would protect their lives and limbs.
Many women who attempt to complain find themselves discriminated against at work, fined and in some cases sacked. If they want to take their case, higher to the courts or to the local labour bureaus, they often find that the relevant authorities are unwilling to take on their case. Many workers find themselves in a position where they undertake more drastic measures such as demonstrations or attempted suicides to reclaim benefits. There is a growing number of non governmental groups which attempt to offer advice to female migrant workers in labour protection and industrial disputes, however these groups can themselves only make a small dent in the problem.

Worker Organization

Several organizations are now attempting to assist and empower these women migrant workers through training and education on their labour related rights. Several legal clinics have begun to assist women migrants in filing claims against employers and local labour bureaus. In one case in Beijing, twenty-four migrant women workers from Laishui County, Hebei Province, worked for Beijing's Hua Yi garment factory from 1995 to 1997. The women were made to work overtime in extremely harsh condition and routinely beaten and insulted by their bosses. When their wages were withheld they complained and finally cooperated with the Centre for Women's Law Studies and Legal Services of Beijing University. After several filings and judgments the women were eventually awarded 170,000 in back wages and compensation with the help of the legal aid lawyers. [NOTE 7]

However, examples like this are all too rare. Most migrant women are unaware of their rights and afraid of losing their jobs and are therefore unwilling to pursue claims against their employers. Local authorities are often complacent and sometimes culpable in working with enterprises to avoid implementing Chinese Labour Law to seek greater production and profit.

In order for women migrant workers to realize their rights:

Labour rights groups; the ACFTU and the ACWF need to increase their efforts to educate migrant workers on their rights under Chinese Labour Law


The ACFTU needs to fully implement its new policy, which allows migrant workers to join unions

The ACFTU should assist these newly formed unions to democratically elect their representatives and negotiate collective contracts with employers

The Chinese government should seek further reform of the “hukou” system to provide migrant workers with full social welfare benefits in their new urban residences

The Chinese government should allow workers to organize health and safety committees to help ensure safe working environments.

The Chinese Government must allow workers the fundamental right to freedom of association and expression, including the right to form independent trade unions.

Causes of Migrant Labour


The rural population living under China’s poverty line has, according to official statistics, dropped from 250 million (30 percent of the rural population in 1978) to 42 million (4.6 percent of rural population in 1998). However while these statistics show a huge improvement, there are still some 100 million people living below the international poverty line. [NOTE 8]

The Chinese authorities have began to realize that the increasing income gap between urban and rural areas and the decreasing access to basic services for the rural population, such as education and health care, are crucially important and pressing problems to address. [NOTE 9] However the impact of poverty reduction programs remains hindered by a lack of implementation of national regulations on the provision of services, a lack of investment in services by the central and local authorities and the pervasive nature of local corruption in rural areas. In 1986, Chinese Government implemented the Poverty Reduction Program for Rural China, but after more than 10 years operation, its impact remains unclear for many Chinese analysts. [NOTE 10] Despite this, the increasing numbers of migrants have brought economic progress and relief to many places. Migrant workers remittances have in some areas, acted as the most important catalyst for local development, rather than state sanctioned initiatives. [NOTE 11] The economic contribution of migrant labour - and more recently female migrant labour in particular – both in the cities and in the rural areas - remains widely un-rewarded.

Motivation for Migration

There are several different factors in the motivation behind migration for men and women aside from general poverty issues. In a study of female migrant workers in 1998, it was found that the women were sending their remittances home for the financial support of their families, including the support of male siblings. In five out of ten groups, women were sending money to their elder brothers and communicating about how to help their brothers financially. In two cases, the money was to support the university upkeep for a male sibling. [NOTE 12] In some families, there were more than one young female working in the cities to support the family. The study reported; “the [work] division between the sexes seems to be for the interests of the whole family, but it also implies the unequal position and rights for females. The rights of males [to opportunities and development] are protected and respected as they are linked to the family’s longer term benefit, interest, but the same right for females is considered as uneconomic and therefore discouraged.” Women are often seen as only offering temporary economic benefit for the family as sooner or later they marry and join another families economic unit.

Such traditional beliefs in the lack of need for female self improvement is clearly shown in the low education levels among rural women. In poor areas, females are more likely to drop out of schools when the family is under financial stress. In general male migrants have a far higher standard of education. In one survey, in the 15 to 30 female migrant worker age group, 68.3 percent had finished junior secondary schooling, 20.4 percent had only completed primary school and 1.1 percent were illiterate. Only 10.2 percent had received high school education, a percentage much lower than their male counterparts in the same area. [NOTE 13] A similar result is found in research into Beijing’s migrant domestic helpers (predominately female), which showed that 64 percent had attended junior secondary schools and 23 percent had only finished primary schools. [NOTE 14] The lack of education and training for rural women migrants perpetuates their ability to only find employment in the lower paid labour intensive industries in the urban areas with little employment opportunities closer to home.

Attitude changes for female migrants and Identity: Migrants as people

Female migrant workers are mainly from underdeveloped, poor areas; they are peasants, workers and women at the same time. Compared with the first generation of migrant workers in the 1980s, the more recent female migrant workers are less knowledgeable about farm work and agriculture. They tend to be younger and single with a weaker sense of responsibility towards the family and their financial burden is lighter than the previous married generation of migrant workers. [NOTE 15] After years of working in the cities, their sense of identity changes and they often reject their native rural identity and instead identify with other urban migrants. [NOTE 16]

This translates into a discontent with a return to rural life - for many the end of relative independence. In one example, shown in a study in 2003, a female worker from Shaanxi who had worked in a textile factory in Dongguan (Guangdong Province) for 10 years expressed her unhappiness at a return to the more traditional and unequal life at home. While away in Dongguan she had managed to finance the building of the largest house in her village, paid her parents’ medical bills, found a bride for her elder brother and supported her younger sister through secondary school. In those 10 years, she saved all her money for her family and had little time for her own life or marriage prospects. In early 2003 her family told her to return to marry a local man whom they had chosen for her, one who she did not know. In an interview she stated; “I am not willing to do this but my mother told me, ‘child, it is your fate! ’” [NOTE 17]

Such an unwillingness and unhappiness about marriage and resettlement in the rural areas contradicts their constant homesickness while in the cities which often appears in their daily conversions. However, it shows the great change between the girl they were once and the urban migrant worker they became. Many of these women go on to try to choose their partners more carefully and are less likely to marry men who had not the same experience as them. In many cases, women have been to the cities would try to find similarly lower class urban men - workers from their hometowns or migrant workers from other places rather than rural dwellers. [NOTE 18]

In an informative and illuminating study on the migrant population in Hangzhou City in the economically boom province of Zhejiang, video interviews with young women workers revealed the contradictory pushes and pulls of rural versus urban life. Describing a working life of incredible hardship, enormous social discrimination from urban residents and exclusion from the benefits of city life, they also felt that they wanted to stay, to earn the little money they do to improve their family’s livelihood. They wanted to remain in the cities, despite the hardships because in general for women life in the poor rural areas is worse.

Interview with worker Mei Luxian at Hangzhou No.1 Cotton Factory:

"I think the hardest thing to take is that Hangzhou people look down on us. They call us 'working sisters' and say we're nobodies. Nowadays not as many look down on us, but a few still do. 'Country bumpkin, country bumpkin', that's what they say. Our self respect takes a big blow. Sometimes they say a few words: 'you country bumpkins such and such....' Now that I've been here a few years and I'm older they don't say such things to me, but five years ago they were always saying it. 'You country bumpkins, what have you got to be proud of?' I'd try and argue with them and cry. Then I'd go back to the dormitory and cry some more. I've lived for the past ten years in a dormitory. I sleep in the top bunk. One dorm room holds five people. Life is hard. I'd say it's much tougher than for city people.

After four or five years in the cities, young migrant women realize that they have reached the age for marriage and such a realization forces on them some difficult choices. Most came to the cities to assist their families and their effort does make a huge difference to their families. They know well that if they work hard, they can manage to live in the cities and for many, despite the great hardship, they want to continue living in an urban area because of its employment and other opportunities. However, the continuing Hukou system, the sharp distinction between rural and urban residents, widespread discrimination against migrant workers coupled with the powerlessness and vulnerability of young female migrant workers mean that there is often little chance of remaining in the city and finding a rewarding or financially stable career. One female migrant worker interviewed after 11 years in Beijing told reporters, “Beijing is great but it is none of our business. To stay, we have to marry a local but where can we find a Beijing man who would want to marry us? Our final destination is to return home.”[NOTE 20] Many migrant women denied of urban life and equal opportunities for development find that they return to the rural areas and become peasants again, working in the fields and taking care of the household. Some research has indeed shown that married rural women seldom leave their villages – in one study it was found that only 16 percent of women surveyed had managed to visit the next village or town. [NOTE 21]

When my family came to see me in the dormitory they said, 'Oh, your conditions are so poor - four to five people in such a small room.' Of course the rooms are nothing like at home in the mountains. In the countryside the houses are all big. I must say that it's a bit boring now. I don't get a chance to go out. If I worked shifts I still couldn't go out. If I was working night shifts I'd be worried I wouldn't get enough sleep for the next shift. Things are tough. Being on the production line is very hard work. Even though some Japanese machines have been brought in, one person still has to run ten at once. That's very hard. You’re always on the move, never still. If you want to go to the toilet you have to get someone to take over for you. There are no breaks. For people like us, life is tough. Work is tough. It has to be said that work in the production workshops is very tough. Speaking for myself, I feel very frustrated. If I'd stayed at home and succeeded at senior high school I could have got a better job.

I can be frank with you. I have a boyfriend from the same place as me. He's like me, also a temporary worker here. Now I'm rethinking things. We haven't yet married, even though we've been together four years, and now I'm not very happy about it. One problem is that we don't have a flat. If we got married we wouldn't have a flat because our household registration is elsewhere. He is also a wage-worker. His wages are only 500 Yuan a month, so if the two of us got married we'd only have a thousand Yuan a month. If, for example, we were to have a child, the costs would be very high. As far as kindergartens and schools are concerned, we're a 'black' household: we don't have household registration here, so we'd have to pay double to get our kid in. I feel lost. After having spent ten years at the Hangzhou cotton factory I myself feel that I'm a nobody. I've worked for so many years. I have lots of former classmates who've done something for themselves. They've graduated from college and been assigned a good job. So sometimes I really feel inferior. You could say that most of us 'working sisters' have a sense of inferiority. One problem is that we're not registered here. As far as Hangzhou people are concerned, they are the hosts and we are outsiders. In other words, we're just crashing their dinner party. It's so embarrassing.

When I first came I thought like a country girl. I thought I'd go back to where I'd come from. I always thought I'd go home one day. That's what I said five, no six, years ago. At most I'd work in Hangzhou for just a few years. Even if I got married, it would be back at home. That's how I thought. I was still a country girl. When the other girls escaped and went home, I felt I couldn't go back because I'd be laughed at, but I didn't feel good about it. I'm a country person, so naturally I wanted to go back. But now I think that even if they wanted me to, I wouldn't go back. I went home for a few months, but couldn't adapt. I've already got used to things here. In terms of food etc., of course things at home have improved. You could say it's not much different from the city now. All the same, I'd prefer to stay here. It's still more comfortable here. [NOTE 19]


[NOTE 1] Xinhua, ‘China’s Trade Unions to Help Workers Recover Unpaid Wages’, December 29, 2003.

[NOTE 2] Kuhn, Anthony, ‘A High Price to Pay for a Job’, Far Eastern Economic Review, January 22, 2004.

[NOTE 3] Nan Xianghong, “They (female migrant workers), in the struggle of youth”, Nanfeng Weekend, 26 September 2003.

[NOTE 4] Zhang Ye, ‘Migrant Women Workers and the Emerging Civil Society in China’.

[NOTE 5] “Women Workers’ Cooperative: a Warm Home for Female Migrant Workers”, Workers’ Daily, 14 May 2003.

[NOTE 6] Nan Xianghong, “Female Migrant Workers’ Collective Sketch”, Nanfeng Weekend, 26 September 2003.

[NOTE 7] Charles J. Ogletree and Rangita de Silva-de Alwis, ‘When Gender Differences Become a Trap: The Impact of China's Labor Law on Women’, 14 Yale J.L. & Feminism 69, 2002

[NOTE 8] http://www.nationmaster.com/country/ch/Economy

[NOTE 9] “China has the greatest income gap between rural and urban areas” according to the Hong Kong Economic Journal, 26 February 2004. It quotes a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ publication, stating that the top 10 percent highest income group has earned 32 percent of the GDP in 2002, an increase of 1.2 percent compared with 1995. It said that more than 40 percent of the total income difference existed between the rural and urban areas; if medical welfare, education, unemployment insurance, all the non-monetary benefits were considered, the income gap between the two places would be the biggest in the world.

[NOTE 10] Zhang Linshu, “Rural Areas’ “Anti-Poverty” and Gender Issues in China”, 29 October 1999.

[NOTE 11] Li Qiang, “Research on Migrant Workers’ Remittance”, Sociology Research, Vol. 4, 2001.

[NOTE 12] Tan Shen, “Communication within Female Labourers”, Sociological Research, no.6, 1998.

[NOTE 13] “Women Workers’ Cooperative: a Warm Home for Female Migrant Workers”, Workers’ Daily, 14 May 2003.

[NOTE 14] Zhou Xinyu, “The High Mobility of Beijing Domestic Helpers”, China Youth News, 1 February 2004.

[NOTE 15] Wang Chunguang, “New Generation Migrant Workers’ Social Identity and the Relations between Rural and Urban Areas”, extracts from Xinhua Wenzhai, Vol. 10, 2001, quoted from Sinology Research, Vol. 3, 2001.

[NOTE 16] Wang Chunguang, “New Generation Migrant Workers’ Social Identity and the Relations between Rural and Urban Areas”, extracts from Xinhua Wenzhai, Vol. 10, 2001, quoted in Sinology Research, Vol. 3, 2001.

[NOTE 17] “Travelling between ‘Love’ and ‘Grumbler”, Nanfeng Weekend, 7 March 2003.

[NOTE 18] Zhang Ye, ‘Migrant Women Workers and the Emerging Civil Society in China’

[NOTE 18] Ethnography and Video: Researching Women in China's Floating Population, Tamara Jacka & Josko Petkovic, Murdoch University. See http://wwwsshe.murdoch.edu.au/intersections/back_issues/tampt1.html. See also forthcoming book; “Working sisters answer back:Representation and self-representation in women in China’s floating population, Tamara Jacka, China Information..

[NOTE 19] “Who will help the city’s female migrant workers finding husbands?”, Hebei Workers’ News, 25 October 2003.

[NOTE 20] “Rural Women: Development in the Divisions” China Women News, 16 June 2003.

March 8 2004

March 8 2004

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