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In Context

According to a survey by the National Bureau of Statistics of China, the average monthly income for a migrant worker in 2004 was 780 yuan, just over half the national urban average of 1,350 yuan.

In 2008, another study showed a more favorable comparison: 850 renminbi (RMB) per month for migrant workers, as compared to 1,050 RMB per month for urban workers. The exchange rate at the time of USD $1 = 8 RMB, however, shows how little both types of worker make by U.S. standards. Furthermore, these workers were required to work long hours; they averaged 11 hours a day, 26 days a month. A 2008 study showed that 28 percent worked more than 12 hours a day, and 81 percent worked six or seven days a week.) One study of three central provinces found that migrants worked 50 percent more hours than native urban workers, but earned less than 60 percent of native urban workers' average salaries, making their hourly wages about one quarter those of urban residents. Also, migrant workers reported frequent delays and arbitrary decreases in pay.

Employers are not required to provide certain benefits for migrant workers, who have also forfeited government benefits. A 2008 study showed only 19 percent of migrant workers had some form of health insurance and 26 percent were entitled to limited sick pay, compared to 68 percent and 66 percent, respectively, for urban workers. Of those migrants who do receive sick pay, only 15 percent receive sick pay that matches base pay. Because medical treatment is drastically more expensive in urban areas than in rural ones, migrant workers often return home when forced to seek medical attention (a practice that can skew statistics on the health of migrant worker populations, making them seem healthier than they are).

Photo caption: The Zhang family at a factory -- their lives represent the lives of millions of Chinese migrant workers
Credit: Lixin 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.