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In Context

Though these migrant workers have effectively relocated to areas where there are jobs, Chinese social policy has prevented them from fully establishing themselves there.

In 1958, China created a household registration system, called hukou, designed to aid the distribution of welfare and resources, control migration and keep watch on criminal activity. Each citizen is determined to live in either a rural or urban household, or hukou, based on his or her place of residence. Local governments are responsible for providing services such as education, housing and medical care to the constituents within their districts, and urban residents are given additional benefits in the form of food rations and job allocations. To discourage migration between districts, residents are not allowed to work or live outside their hukous without approval from authorities. If they do, they forfeit all rights and benefits, including education and medical care. Citizens are required to register their permanent and even temporary locations with police, and in some cases rural registrants may be arrested just for entering cities.

Despite the massive migrations within China in the past three decades, the hukou system persists today, making it nearly impossible for migrants to bring their families with them. Hukou reform has become a crucial political issue, but many migrant workers lack the education, motivation or political voice to fight for their rights.

Over the years there have been several efforts to reform or relax the hukou system, but widespread reform has yet to be enacted. One program proposed introducing temporary and visiting statuses that would allow some access to social services. One tried to grant permanent residency to migrant workers who had stable work, but also required applicants to own their own apartments -- a stipulation that ruled out most struggling workers.

In some provinces, workers can apply for temporary residency status that allows them to collect some benefits, or at least grants them access to services for pay, but the application process is usually complicated, and the fees required to register discourage many from applying. At one time, workers who had not registered as temporary residents could be barred from getting any job or from renting property, but those restrictions were abolished in 2003.

Migrant workers have seen some improvement in conditions in recent years, at least on paper. Reform enacted in 2003 requires employers to sign labor contracts with workers, pay them on time and compensate them for termination of employment. In response to those reforms, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions encouraged migrant workers to join local unions, and by 2008, half of them, or 62 million, had. In 2007, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions announced that it had helped more than 30.3 million migrant workers get home for the Chinese New Year using special trains and buses and group ticket purchases, secured 1.73 billion yuan in back wages for 2.65 million workers and provided financial assistance for more than 80,000 workers to allow their children to go to school.

Photo caption: Qin and her brother talk on the mountain where they usually play before she sets on her unknown journey to the city.
Credit: Liming Fan

» "Migrant Workers in China." China Labour Bulletin, June 6, 2008.
» "The Second Industrial Revolution." BBC News. May 11, 2004.
» Hesketh, Therese, and Ye Xue Jun, Li Lu, and Wang Hong Mei. "Health Status and Access to Health Care of Migrant Workers in China." Public Health Reports, March-April 2008.
» Swift, Richard, "Whose Miracle." New Internationalist Magazine, April 1, 2011.
» China's young migrant workers mobile, ambitious - survey. Reuters, Feb 21, 2011.