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The Changing Face of China’s Labor Force


Steve Nettleton: Now, emboldened by new labor laws and a strong economy, more workers are taking a stand to demand higher salaries and better benefits. . . .  The unrest comes as a new wave of workers in their twenties take their turn to fill the factory payrolls.  They are the first generation born under China’s strict family planning policies that sought to limit most parents to having only one child.  The policies significantly reduced birth rates, especially in rural areas, the source from which the bulk of China’s floating labor population comes.  “Labor-intensive industries still make up the majority of China’s economy.  So, economic prosperity is based on labor.  A rapid increase in exports means the market needs even more workers.  But since 2004 the supply of labor, especially cheap labor, from rural areas, has been going down. . . .  China is now facing a dilemma: on one hand, many college graduates cannot secure jobs because there are not enough high-level positions for them; on the other, labor-intensive industries are short of labor” (Liu Kaiming).  At job fairs like this one in Guangzhou, openings far outnumber applicants. . . .

A rift is growing between companies and an increasingly assertive workforce.  Workers say while wages have risen, they are not keeping pace with China’s expanding economy. . . .  “People are different from generation to generation.  Before we had to endure hardship; people now talk about enjoyment and dining out.  Before it was about having adequate clothing and food; now it is about being fairly prosperous and secure” (Zeng Jianbo). . . .  A new generation of migrant workers are streaming into China’s manufacturing center of Guangdong.  They are younger, better educated, and have a bigger dream than their predecessors.  Unlike before they are not here just to feed their families.  They want to enjoy their share of China’s economic miracle.  Nearly a quarter of a billion migrant laborers form the backbone of China’s development machine.

But while jobs are plentiful, workers still face many difficulties: lengthy separation from family, cramped living conditions, and policies that make many feel excluded from the urban community they’ve adopted. . . .  Wherever migrants like Liu and Hu go, they are always officially regarded as temporary residents and ineligible for certain public services.  That’s because according to the government they are still citizens of their hometown in Hubei Province.  China has long used a household registration permit, known as the hukou, to control the population flow from the countryside to the cities. . . .  As non-residents, they do not qualify for subsidized housing, free secondary education for their children, or public health insurance programs. . . .

In some parts of China, the hukou system is going through a change.  The Yangtze River metropolis of Chongqing is offering to grant millions of workers from the countryside a city hukou.  Chongqing is more than a single city.  It is a mountainous chunk of central China the size of Austria, populated by more than 33 million people, 20 million of them farmers.  According to the new policy, farmers who live in the urban center for five years or in [remote country seats in] rural areas for three can apply for a city hukou.  But many rural residents are skeptical of the plan as they must sell the rights to their farmland to take up the offer.  They say it’s unclear how much they would receive and how they then make a living in the city.  Ms. Zhang works as a waitress at a small restaurant in downtown Chongqing.  She comes from a village outside the urban center.  She is reluctant to apply for a city hukou for fear it would mean losing her rural home.  “Housing and living costs in a city would be our burden.  Residence is the primary problem because the housing price in Chongqing is really high, and most of us can’t afford it.  But if the living cost and housing problems can be solved, most of us would like to transfer our hukou to the city.  After all, the city has convenient facilities and more chances to make money” (Zhang).  Travel agent Zhang Qian commutes two hours every day to downtown Chongqing from her home in the mountains across the river.  She has worked in factories in Guangdong and the eastern Jiangsu Province but now prefers to stay in her hometown.  Her parents have switched to an urban hukou, but she is in no rush to change hers.  “I feel for the government the policy of changing rural resident status to urban resident status is a good way for the old people who lost work since in rural areas if they don’t work they need to rely on their children for life expenses.  As for young people like us, we would like to work in factories or companies, the employers will pay for social welfare and pensions, so for us there are few differences” (Zhang Qian).

Swelling populations of floating workers have led other major cities to try new tactics in managing the flow.  In Beijing, where more than 7 million of the city’s 19 million residents are migrant laborers, walls are rising around some low-income neighborhoods, and ID cards are now required to enter Dashengzhuang, a community mostly inhabited by migrant workers in the capital’s southern suburb.  Gates bar the entrance, while security guards and surveillance cameras keep watch on comings and goings.  Authorities say the measures are needed to protect the neighborhood from rising crime, a sentiment shared by some locals. . . .  For others, though, extra security seems like another way to keep migrants isolated and marginalized. . . .

“There were 19,000 cases of labor conflicts in 1995 while in 2009 the number topped 800,000.  It increased quite fast.  I believe there will be more new-generation workers who support the establishment of workers’ unions which can really speak for their interests.  This may even influence the country’s political structure in the future” (Liu Kaiming).

This video was released by Al Jazeera on 23 September 2010.  The text above is an edited partial transcript of the video.  Cf. “Even with Chinese factory wages up more than 20 per cent this year, the factories are facing a labour shortage. . . .  A recent survey of 5000 migrant workers in Shenzhen by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions found that workers aged below 30 changed jobs twice as often as their older colleagues” (Alexandra Harney, “China’s Migrant Workers: From Beggars to Choosers,” The Age, 21 September 2010); and “In the next 20 years, 400 million migrant rural workers in China will acquire urban citizenship, which will cost about 100,000 yuan per person, meaning that 2 trillion yuan is needed to help these workers receive urban citizenship every year, according to a recent report” (Li Mu, “400 Million Migrant Workers to Acquire Urban Citizenship in Next 20 Years,” People’s Daily Online, 25 September 2010).  See, also, Dongping Han, “The Hukou System and China’s Rural Development” (Journal of Developing Areas 33.3, Spring 1999); and “Left Critique of Liberal Calls for Hukou Reform” (China Study Group, 8 March 2010).

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