Migrant Labourers are the Unsung Heroes of the China Miracle

Since the start of reform in 1979, the internal movement of people is a key feature of the Chinese growth phenomenon; millions of people move from the poor impoverished interior to find work in the factories, construction sites and service sectors in the cities. It is estimated that some 120 million Chinese consist of migrant labor which is approximately 9% of the population. They altogether send to their hometown some USD 65.4 billion every year.

The migrant labor leads a hard life: they are “guest” workers in the host city, with no social security or protection for their well-being. For three decades now, even though they have lived and contributed to the building of the host cities, their “hukuo” or registry remains with their native village. By this, it means that they and their children will not be integrated into the host city and therefore cannot enjoy any of the services and benefits of health care, education or housing.

Migrant labor is a very important group contributing cheap labor to the nation’s factories and construction sites as well as the “ah-yi” domestic help in the cities, but their plight is often pathetic. Not given proper training, their wages are often owed, they work long hours in sites with low safety protection; their living conditions are poor and often congested. They engage in many jobs that the urbanites will not lift a finger on: physically demanding construction work, cleaning up of the environment, keeping watch of premises. Although the migrant labor is a source of potential social disruptions and conflict, economists in China agree that this phenomenon will exist in China for a long period of time.

Due to the improved connectivity provided by railway and highways, many migrants workers stayed home while some became entrepreneurs while many work at the new jobs opened up by the development of their home provinces. Starting in 2009, the coastal cities are beginning to experience labor shortage because these migrant workers no longer want to return to deplorable working and living conditions.


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