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  • Gordon Dumoulin

280 million unsung heroes of China’s spectacular economic growth | DIFFERENT CHINA (ep 4)

Today’s China is known for its developments and innovation in economy, technology and society with the famous icons of new revolutionary business giants such as Alibaba and Tencent and a strongly growing middle class full of confidence, developments and ambitions. Lesser known are the 280 million migrant workers who make this immense growth happen.

The core engine of China’s spectacular economic growth over the last three decades

The actual core engine of China’s spectacular growth is the massive continuously moving rural workforce who migrated during the past three decades from their villages to developed urban regions to work in construction, infrastructure and industry. They often switch regions in China where they are needed in next projects. This moving rural labour migration force is estimated at approximately 280 million people today of which the majority are men.

Motives of the migrant rural workers

Many of the original migrant workers are separated from their families for years or even decades with a single visit back home once a year during one of the major festivals or even only once in a few years. They work and live traditionally at construction, infrastructure or industrial sites, sleeping in simple dormitories with food and basic necessities provided.

The basic workers’ motives for migration and separation is working hard and earning money to provide a better future for their families and children. Especially saving the money for childrens’ advanced education is one of the key reasons for their decision to work and live for decades at construction sites.

Due to the one child policy in last decades (now lifted), there are also many single, unmarried male workers who are migrating to earn money for increasing their chances to find a bride and start a family. The balance between male and female in their 20’s and 30’s is distorted through the one child policy so men have to fight much harder and provide more stability such as a house and education to an eligible bride than before as she has a much wider choice of potential candidates to consider.

Staying at home, farming is usually the only option which only provides the basic needs and practically no possibilities to save money for education and other options in the future. 

Social impact rural migration

One can imagine that this massive, predominantly rural male migration has had and still has major social consequences on people and their lives. Children are growing up in single parent families or many only with grandparents. Rural villages are inhabited with only elderly and children while the middle generations have left to work in urban regions and cities and they live in restricted social environments focused on labour.

People in China are registered by the hukou (household registration) system, the hukou is the family and origin passport in which each person of the family is registered. Principally people are restricted by the hukou registration location to receive basic education, health care and other social services only in the district of your hukou. This means that when people will work in another part of China, they will not receive the basic social services. 

The hukou system has been introduced in the 1950’s to avoid families migrating and moving to the wealthier regions of China. For this reason, families of migrant workers often stay in their village to receive basic social welfare such education for the children and health care for the eldery.

New developments and conditions rural migrant workforce

During the last 5-10 years, rural migrant workers are more and more in demand due to ongoing infrastructure and construction projects and less local urban people in China are willing to perform this hard physical labor.

This situation has increased the confidence and power of migrant workers to demand higher salaries, better work conditions and compare different work opportunities. Moreover the government is implementing more and more regulations for the rural migrant workforce to guarantee basic work and living conditions provided by the employers.

The current urban society in China is also in demand for new types of rural migrant labour. One example is the immense growth of the rural women workforce for child care (nanny). Couples in urban regions are often both making careers with long working hours. Secondly, couple are now allowed to have more than one child which is a great wish for many and thirdly the quality and method of raising children is often a dispute between parents and grandparents. These circumstances has created a huge demand for an “ayi” (nanny) at home who can take care of the children.

The future and perspectives of the rural migrant workforce

The circumstances and perspectives of the moving rural migrant workforce will have many changes in the near future.

First of all, the social developments and labour opportunities in many rural regions is improving rapidly due to government investments and regulations in rural regions as well as business initiatives and investments who see the countryside as a great new market opportunity. For example Alibaba is setting up and managing complete e-commerce villages where the people handle e-commerce business for deliveries all over China. One can imagine that stock, rental and operational costs are much lower in the countryside than in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou.

This will mean that staying at home with the family will be much more attractive for the rural workforce than being separated and living in their current work environment at construction sites.

This decrease of workforce plus the continuous regulation flow for labour conditions and wages makes it more difficult for industry, construction, infrastructure to find workers for their labour needs. A dynamic situation with certainly new perspectives like strong salary and conditions increases for laborers or an alternative might be to start hiring cheap foreign workers from abroad.

One thing is certain, the continuous need of workforce in China is subject to many challenges and changes in the near future.

“Different CHINA” is a series telling different sides of China which are lesser known to the world. China is well known through many publications for its miraculous speed of developments and growth in technology, environment, commerce, social structures and international standing with Chinese people embracing innovation while keeping tradition highly valued. But this image does not do full justice as China is so much more in its diversity, culture, environment, people and initiatives.  “Different CHINA” is part of 5iZ.

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