China’s Problem Children: Migrant Labor in the World’s Factory


“Every word, every act, and every policy must conform to the people’s interests, and if mistakes occur, they must be corrected— that is what being responsible to the people means.”

—Mao Zedong

The world’s leaders and intellectuals agree: there’s no place quite like China. Once left for dead as the twentieth century neared its zenith, the Middle Kingdom has reinvigorated itself in less than two decades, becoming a leading player on the global stage. The country’s miracle economy has left analysts dumbstruck; no one could have predicted that a nation that weathered famine, war, and social upheaval for nearly a century could become such a powerhouse overnight. Indeed, many of the age-old maxims of developing nations—such as patterns of growing industry—no longer apply to this giant of the East. As one of the world’s oldest civilizations, it has proven it can play by the rules of twenty-first-century capitalism and win. Having put five-year plans and cultural revolutions behind them, the new Chinese leadership seems content to focus on—in the words of political advisor Zheng Bijian—a “peaceful rise” to international prominence. But this race to the top has left some citizens behind.

China’s exploding capital has ridden on the back of its stunningly efficient production rate, which, in turn, is driven by an enormous labor pool. In an economy that has averaged 9 percent growth since the early 1980s, foreign trade accounts for over 70 percent of employment. Economists can only watch in awe as this “toy factory of the world” spews out row upon row of appliances, electronics, and tools for international consumption. As Jim Rogers details in his book, A Bull in China: Investing Profitability in the World’s Greatest Market (2007), Chinese manufacturers produce 50 percent of the world’s cameras, 30 percent of the world’s air conditioners and TVs, and 40 percent of its microwaves. In fact, these days it’s hard to find anything that doesn’t carry the label “Made in China.” While people are familiar with the output of Chinese companies, many don’t realize that their able and willing work force didn’t originate in Chinese cities. Where do China’s workers come from? While the North Pole is a good guess, the most likely candidate for the position is actually a mingnong: a migrant worker.

The coastal cities that pump out products for the global economy have attracted seemingly endless numbers of workers from the Chinese countryside in recent years. According to a People’s Daily Online article published in March, factories fill forty million positions with migrants each year, and it is their labor that drives the production rate behind China’s gargantuan corporations. The total number of migrant workers now established in cities is at 150 million (nearly 15 percent of the population), estimates David Lampton in his 2008 book, The Three Faces of Chinese Power: Might, Money, and Minds. These workers form an integral part of the urban—and consequently, the entire—Chinese economy. If you own anything that carries the “China” label, chances are a migrant worker put it together for you.

One might think that migrant workers have it made with the dynamic Chinese economy, but statistics tell a different story. The average migrant worker makes only 64 cents an hour. Factory owners manage to keep wages low using the threat of competition: In a country with 300 workers ready to fill a single position, migrants must auction their labor at the lowest wages possible. This race to the bottom doesn’t help in terms of benefits: Less than 2 percent of migrant laborers have unemployment insurance. Only 13 percent have accident insurance. If workers are injured on the job—a common occurrence thanks to dangerous conditions in urban factories—they are merely let go and replaced with others from a bottomless pool of labor. Migrants willingly put their necks out in the hope of being able to feed their families. Managers, in turn, regularly cheat employees out of wages, knowing that the average worker won’t risk losing his livelihood in an argument.

Three-fifths of a dollar doesn’t go a long way in the real estate market either: 70 percent of those living in coastal cities cannot afford housing. Migrants resort to shoving themselves into whatever filthy, cramped tenements they can find. In these locales, 55 percent do not have access to sanitation. But migrants don’t bother complaining since, according to the occupancy laws of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), they have no legal rights. Without a certificate of residence, it is illegal for them to even live in the city. Most are willing to endure dilapidated housing as long as their secret is safe with the landlord. But even their silence doesn’t guarantee shelter. Since 1990 the Chinese government has advocated the Old and Dilapidated Housing Redevelopment program (ODHR), which gives officials the right to evacuate overcrowded and impoverished districts and tear them down in order to “improve the urban landscape.” Migrant workers, for the reasons stated above, have no right to complain or apply for new housing. As reported in The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed (2008), written by Michael Myer, the government evicted 1.25 million people in 2007 as part of its ODHR program.

Where does this endless stream of migrants come from? For the past decade, migrants have come from rural communities, where a majority of the populace—940 million people—resides. The reasons for their travel are based on both opportunity in the cities and poor conditions in rural environments. The chance of a better income drives many: rapid development in China’s cities has contributed to gigantic income disparity between the two camps. The average city dweller makes 3.2 times more than his or her rural counterpart. In a process that parallels the wave of illegal immigrants entering the United States from Mexico, migrants head to the city in the hopes of sending money to their poor families back home. Rural residents also suffer from a lack of state institutions; only 21 percent of citizens have access to state-run health care. Diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS are common. Initially, it is mostly the males of peasant families who go off to find work. As they rush to the city however, so-called “dragonhead” firms lease abandoned tracts of land (the spouses and siblings the men leave behind are unable to handle it alone) to corporate development. The rest of the family then has little choice but to move on as well. This further swells the migrant population as large families head eastward after being pushed from their fields.

The current attitude of the PRC toward these issues has been one of politically induced apathy. Though officials have advocated “redistribution of wealth” and “balanced development”—moves that will benefit rural and urban workers—they haven’t done enough to improve conditions for the working class, says Mark Leonard in his 2008 book, What Does China Think? In their efforts to stimulate China’s rise, leaders are wary of placing further restrictions on industry and increasing the size of the welfare state. They worry such measures could limit growth and undo the progress of the last thirty years. This philosophy originated with Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, who initiated reform in the PRC. He argued that “some must get rich first” before the conditions of the poor and working classes could improve (i.e., a nation must become industrialized before all will benefit). In 2002 then-premier Zhu Rongji supported the Party’s dedication to growth when he said:

We are trying to establish social security and meet their needs. However, because we are poor, it is impossible to have benefits like the Western countries, so active workers have more benefits than laid-off workers. This current period is one of transition from plan to the market.

It is obvious given the current state of migration that China’s labor policy must undergo reforms. Wang Hui, a leader of the “New Left” movement that seeks to address the plight of urban workers, had this to say on China’s current policy in 2007:

China is caught between the two extremes of misguided socialism and crony capitalism, and suffering from the worst elements of both systems…I am generally in favor of orienting the country toward market reforms, but China’s development must be more equal, more balanced. We must not give total priority to GDP growth to the exclusion of worker’s rights and the environment.

There are three areas of development the PRC must address in order to prove itself as a developed nation that can solve labor issues and effectively provide for its citizens. First, the government must provide low-cost health care to urban workers, and employers must provide accident insurance for laborers injured on the job. Second, employees must be given rights. They must be allowed to organize outside the government’s standard unions and demand minimum wages and benefits. Third, the government must seek to improve conditions in rural communities, so that peasants are not forced to uproot their families and move to the city in order to find work. The government took a step forward in 2003, when the newly appointed Secretary Hu Jintao pledged to improve healthcare funding and send rural children to school for nine years of compulsory education at no cost. These initiatives will use China’s newfound wealth to establish a social model of development that benefits all.

In their domestic policy, the Communist Party must stop to consider its debt to China’s working class. Mao Zedong, who led Communist forces to establish the modern Chinese government in 1949, rose to power after courting the peasants and workers of rural villages. He said of workers in 1944: “Our Communist Party is a battalion of the revolution. This battalion of ours is wholly dedicated to the liberation of the people and works entirely in the people’s interests.” In a 2002 speech, Zhu Rongji further elaborated on the moral crisis of the Communist Party as it put growth ahead of the needs of labor: “I think if we show no regard for workers or use violence against workers we betray our ideals—we are the Communist Party. Therefore, we are trying to establish social security and to meet their needs.”

Party officials would also do well to look to the past. Throughout China’s history, its people have applied humanistic reasoning to public office. Nearly 2,500 years ago Confucius, one of the world’s first humanists, argued that the prime concern of the ruler was to care for the people benevolently. This entailed following principles based upon knowledge and reason and providing a society in which all citizens had their place. In the Analects, Confucius commented on the nature of such a regime: “He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it.” He and other Confucian scholars affirmed the dignity and worth of all citizens in a society, and they advocated staunch responsibility in tending to their needs. This, they believed, would establish a harmonious community, one which any humanist would be proud of.

The new PRC wishes to prove itself a great nation after years of internal strife and humiliation at the hands of foreigners. The first step towards this goal is to ensure that they can handle domestic issues sensibly and with the people’s interest at heart. In order to display their bona fides, party officials must act to combat the excesses of industry. It is a duty that their first leader Mao Zedong once advocated, in hopes that the Party would be willing to admit its mistakes and reform its policies to better serve the masses.

As an international union of humanists who support humanity’s right to work, we must see to it that international governments place pressure upon the PRC to implement these reforms. It is necessary to ensure that the Confucian ideals of benevolent rule, justice, and harmony do not perish in their mother country. To forgo such a righteous message in the name of avarice and material gain is criminal, for as Confucius said: “To see what is right and not to do it is want of courage.”