Real wages for China’s migrant workers stagnate as cost of living escalates

14 May 2014

The average monthly wage for China’s rural migrant workers in 2013 stood at 2,609 yuan, an increase of 13.9 percent over the previous year. However, living expenses increased at a much faster rate, effectively cancelling out any gains made, according to official statistics.

A new survey by the National Bureau of Statistics, published 12 May, shows that per capita living expenses increased by 21.7 percent on average in 2013 to reach 892 yuan per month. The main driving force behind the higher living expenses was a 27 percent increase in accommodation costs, which now make up about 50 percent of total living expenses for migrant workers.

These figures relate specifically to the 166 million rural migrant workers employed outside their home area in China (外出农民工). There are, in addition, 103 million rural migrants employed in cities closer to home (本地农民工), bringing the total number of migrant workers in China to 269 million. Overall, there was a 2.4 percent increase in the number of rural migrant workers in 2013, with the highest rates of increase seen in migrants working closer to home (3.6 percent) and those living outside their home area as a whole family unit (4.4 percent).

The statistics for migrant workers employed outside their home area do show a steady increase in average monthly wages since 2010 but also a noticeable decline in the rate of increase in the last two years. So while migrant worker incomes increased by around 20 percent in 2010 and 2011, they only increased by 12 percent in 2012 and less than 14 percent last year.

The average monthly income for migrant workers employed outside their home area in the manufacturing industry was, 2,537 yuan, slightly less than the overall average. Among the lowest paid were those in the hospitality and catering industries with an average wage of just 2,366 yuan per month, while the highest paid were in the delivery and postal sector, earning 3,133 yuan per month.

The figures indicate that low pay is still a major problem in China and will continue to be a factor in labour disputes for the foreseeable future. Although the focus of many recent factory strikes has been compensation for lay-offs, relocation and change of ownership etc., low pay is often cited by workers as their most pressing grievance.

Migrant workers in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan

The statistics also show that the vast majority of migrant workers still do not have any form of social insurance. In 2013, only 15.7 percent of migrant workers employed outside their home area had a pension, 17.6 percent had medical insurance, 9.1 percent had unemployment insurance and 6.6 percent maternity insurance. The highest coverage rate was for work-related injury insurance at 28.5 percent but this is largely because employer contributions are relatively low and the risks of not having insurance are very high – namely that employers are liable for all medical and living expenses following an employee accident or illness.

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