Festive cheer for migrant workers?

23 December 2009
New announcements from the State Council and the Shanghai government seem to offer some measure of cheer for migrant workers in the New Year, however, as with all government pronouncements, the devil will be in the implementation of the detail.

The State Council decreed yesterday that employee pensions would increase by a further ten percent next year, but more importantly for migrant workers, as of 1 January, they will be transferable from province to province. The fact that hitherto workers have not been able to transfer their pension and social security accounts from province to province has been one of the greatest inequities suffered by migrant workers over the last few decades, and reform of the system is way overdue.

In the past, migrant workers could work in one province for dozens of years but on retirement they would only be able to collect their own contributions to the pension fund, the employer’s contributions (which are about double those of the employee) would remain with the urban government administering the fund.

Of course, no one knows for sure how the new system will work in practice. It will require extensive inter-province and local government/banking cooperation, and relatively sophisticated administrative systems, especially in the poorer inland regions many migrant workers come from. I fear that when a worker returns to his home village in rural Sichuan after decades of labour in Guangdong and tries to transfer his pension account, he will be met with blank stares at best.

In Shanghai however I think there are slightly more grounds for optimism. On 17 December, the deputy mayor of Shanghai, Shen Xiaoming, announced that next year all children of migrant workers in the city would receive free compulsory education in state schools.

In the vast majority of cities, migrant workers have to pay large sums of money each year to send their children to what are often sub-standard schools. Several cities, like Shanghai, have gradually opened the doors of state schools to migrant children but numerous obstacles to free compulsory education remain. See Paying the Price for Economic Development: The Children of Migrant Workers in China.

Shanghai claims to have raised the proportion of migrant children benefiting from free schooling from just 57 percent in 2007 to 93 percent in the autumn semester this year, and it promises that next year all migrant children will be included in the system. While this is clearly a welcome development, we should not forget that many migrant children might still be excluded because their parents don’t meet certain residential requirements, and those that do get in might have to pay additional hidden fees.

Moreover, once they do get into state schools, migrant children will not necessarily be welcomed. As comments posted on China Smack show, many Shanghai residents are extremely hostile to the idea of migrant worker children being in the same class as their “little emperor.”

For example Xi Duolang (喜多郎) wrote: “Shanghainese children are taught by their parents from when they are small to be reasonable and have manners, so they will definitely be bullied if they are put together with hard disks (outsiders) raised in the wild. Looks like in the future, our children will have to start learning karate or taekwondo from when they are small.”

And it is not just in Shanghai that such frankly racist attitudes exist. A couple of weeks ago, I talked to a group of mainland university students from a number of different cities about this very issue. Many were sympathetic to the idea of including migrant children in the urban school system but many others feared that both the physical safety and educational progress of urban children would be threatened by migrant classmates.

Prejudice against rural migrants is deeply ingrained in many urban residents and will take a long time to erode.
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