In The News

China’s New Generation of Migrants

September 29, 2010

Large-scale labor migration and related social tensions have long been issues of concern in China. Lack of integration of hundreds of millions of rural farmers into urban “receiving” cities, left-behind families in “sending” villages, and harsh working conditions for migrants have been common problems here for many years now. More recently, a so-called “new generation” of migrant workers has emerged and is driving a shift in priorities and strategies for assisting a more diverse and dynamic migrant population.

China's young migrant workers

A new, younger generation of migrant workers in China aspire to move beyond the factory floor to more ambitious careers, such as managers and entrepreneurs.

This new generation of migrants, which accounts for nearly half of the estimated 200 million migrant workers in China, is younger (early 20s), more educated (many have completed high school and/or vocational school), and more urban (many “migrants” have actually lived for most of their lives in cities). Consequently, these migrants are more cognizant and demanding of the rights to which they are entitled, including labor contracts, and the benefits and services to which their urban peers have access, such as healthcare and low-income housing options. And, unlike previous generations of migrant workers who intend to eventually return to their rural hometowns, these migrants are determined to settle permanently and carve out futures in the cities that they consider to be their homes.

Moreover, many of these new generation migrants are not content with traditional factory or construction jobs. They have broader and more ambitious career aspirations, such as becoming managers and entrepreneurs. According to a June 2010 study by the National Federation of Trade Unions Migrant Workers Task Force, 27 percent of new generation migrant workers (defined as those born in the late 1980s and 1990s) intend to start a small business, as compared to only 17 percent of older migrant workers; and a greater number of new generation migrants are employed as clerks or other higher-level workers than their predecessors.

However, given the intricacies of the Chinese hukou (residence permit) system, most migrants still maintain rural resident status – even those who may never have lived in or even visited the rural villages to which their hukous are tied. This hinders migrants’ access to critical social services and benefits (like health care, education, and credit) in their de facto home cities. Such disadvantages force them to constantly fight an uphill battle to compete against urban hukou holders for job opportunities.

While the decades-old hukou system cannot be reformed overnight, new opportunities are emerging for migrant workers. Various central government economic stimulus measures in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis (e.g., public works projects and micro-credit schemes for laid-off workers) have created new employment opportunities for some migrant workers, including the prospect of becoming small business owners. And, beginning in 2009, in an unexpected turn of events, reports surfaced of labor shortages in manufacturing sectors that are traditionally staffed by migrant workers. If this trend continues, migrant workers may be in a better position to find jobs that meet their wage expectations and working condition requirements.

While these developments are encouraging, sustained support is needed to facilitate migrants to take advantage of these emerging opportunities. For example, as China’s economy moves up the manufacturing value chain, skilled laborers with higher levels of education and training will be in greater demand. As for existing and potential migrant entrepreneurs, a recent survey sponsored by The Asia Foundation in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Chengdu indicated that there are barriers such as insufficient access to capital and business networks that impede the potential success of migrant-run businesses.

The Asia Foundation has long supported efforts to strengthen labor law compliance and increase worker protections, and to equip migrant workers with skills and tools necessary to identify social support networks and enhance their employability. Alongside these efforts, given the evolving landscape, we are also exploring ways to support the new generation of migrants that aspire to advance their careers by taking on more skilled positions and starting their own businesses. We currently support a program to assist migrant entrepreneurs in their efforts to access credit and networks, and build skills needed to open and operate successful businesses. We also support scholarship opportunities for migrant workers interested in pursuing higher education and vocational training. Going forward, it will be imperative to address challenges facing migrants in consideration of the broader urbanization and professionalization trends of the Chinese workforce.

Nancy Kim is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in China. She can be reached in Beijing at nkim@asiafound.org.cn.

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