The Predicament of Migrant Workers

Written by Tong Xiaoxi

In August 2011, the closing of several schools for migrant population due to urban demolition in Beijing drew attention of the media, and that of many concerned individuals, both within and without China. As Zigen is committed to supporting social services and children’s education in migrant workers communities, the report on the predicaments of the migrant workers and their children has caused a big stir among among Zigen donors, volunteers and office staff, and resulted in heated discussion in our offices and on the internet.

Many are shocked, disappointed and puzzled upon hearing the news. Nonetheless, it is an indication of the degree of the public awareness of, and that of outcry for the predicament of the nearly a hundred million rural migrants, who live in the margins of cities and towns, especially the human cost for small children who have to journey all year round far away from home with their parents. The widespread concern and extended discussion is an achievement in its own way, since Zigen has defined one of its strategic goals of many projects, including those pertaining to the migrant workers, as the understanding of the development issues in China, among which the fate of its peasants is standing out.

The impact of urban demolition and urban renewal on the education of migrant children has been a persistent problem for about ten years. It is no accident that the livelihood of the migrant workers has often got entangled in urban demolition. In order to make a living in an expensive city, the rural migrants have to find the most affordable housing, which are usually located in villages at the outskirts, or in poorly built, unsafe neighborhood with little public services. This is how the so-called “mixed urban and rural section” (chengxiang jiehe bu), or “urban village” have emerged and expanded to humongous scale, with a heavy concentration of migrant population.

In a migrant workers community, public services are virtually non-existent, as there is no garbage collection, sewage, public toilets, fire hydrants, street cleaning, and mostly prominently, medical care or schools. The only supply the residents do get is water and electricity, nonetheless with poor quality, unstable service and exorbitant price at that.

The migrant workers communities are rooted in a unique social and historical condition. Albeit harsh and chaotic in its own way, the Chinese “mixed urban and rural section” or “urban village” is not a slum in the general sense, and is quite different from a third-world shantytown elsewhere. First, it is the consequence of free movement of wage labor implicated by the market reforms. As a result, the need for housing, daily consumption and education for children by the migrants is huge. Thus, the hard earned money by the migrants become opportunities for profits of someone else. For example, Peasants from the suburb of Beijing have built entire neighborhood of cheap housing on their own land so that they became landlords, renting rooms to migrants from the provinces. The peddlers on the streets of an urban village are themselves migrants. The schools for migrant children started the same way, by entrepreneurs, with or without any expertise in education, who had an eye on profits.

Therefore, a major feature of the contemporary Chinese migrant communities in cities and towns is the privatization of public services, with market solution as the only alternative. A second distinction is its volatility and mobility not found elsewhere. As the progress towards land privatization in the countryside is gradual and incomplete, rural migrants retain their family plots and shuttle between the rural and the urban, spending time at home village for festivals and harvests in a seasonal cycle. Lacking a stable or secure job in the cities, the migrants lead a life on the go.

The large scale, spectacular demolition in Beijing started ten years ago; however, the nomadic way of life of rural migrants predated the onset of the tidal waves of urban demolition, and thrives independent of the current urban renewal phenomenon sweeping China. It is worth to take a notice of the high degree of correlation among cheap rent, bad living condition, and likelihood of being demolished soon. Neighborhoods with these characteristics are also the ones with the highest concentration of migrant population. This does not mean that developers (with the backing of local governments) specifically target the vulnerable migrants; rather, they target the plots that have the least resistance for demolition, which by no accident have cheap and undesirable accommodation, that are in turn most likely rented by the migrants.

The migrants are rational actors; they have their goal of earning and bring more money back home. So they have to save money while survive in the cities in ways as decent as practicable. Take the example of the Mudanyuan neighborhood in Beijing, where I have lived for more than six years, and witnessed the growth of the migrant population and their changing life styles. Next to the apartment building in which I live, is a low-end shopping plaza, which offer plenty jobs to migrants on one hand, and daily consumption of every needs for the migrants on the other. Not far away, are one or two storey buildings where many migrants take temporary residence; others sleep, cook and eat in the small store fronts they rent, while children play in the streets. Still others, especially the young, choose to rent an apartment nearby, sometimes many cramming in a small room to reduce cost. We also heard that a few among the migrants have bought or plan to buy a unit in the apartment buildings.

Nonetheless, most of the rural migrants retain their roots in the villages, and eventually go back home. Their odyssey for livelihood, jobs and children’s education thus all become episodes, with a length from a few month to a few years. In the elementary and secondary schools for migrant children supported by Zigen in Beijing, the average length of a students remaining in school is less than one year.

These schools, too, have adapted to the incursion of urban demolition and periodical move. Many of Zigen supported schools regularly relocate every three to five years. This endless flux of move and relocation is, to a large part, caused by the forcible shutting down by government and police, which also drives a great number of students to transfer to another school. On the other hand, the closing of one school always provide entrepreneurial opportunities for someone, and most likely, a new school nearby for migrant children will be open for business.

I have taken some length to show that movements of the migrants are out of careful calculation, given their need to be thrifty, save money and shuttle between their hometown and the cities. We cannot view them simplistically as mere victim of the system; they are also active agent taking up opportunities provided by the system, no matter how meager those are. Nonetheless, there is absolutely no denying that the unwilling relocation caused by urban demolition brings upon the migrant families enormous pain, anxiety and costs. The evidence of its negative effects on migrant children is too apparent to ignore, and we have to keep constantly asking why this human suffering is necessary at all.

Something ironic has captured my imagination for so long: the urban demolition impacted on the migrants in a most violent and severely way: whole families are forced to move; they usually move to a place that will in turn face the prospect of demolition very soon. Even worse, as urban renovation proliferates, such affordable places become harder and harder to find. On the other hand, voice against urban demolition comes not from the migrants, the group affected most by it, but other stake holders. From the migrants’ perspective, the troubles brought by urban demolition is definitely not on their priority list of most urgent issues, the latter being medical expenses for serious illness, obstacles for kid’s college education, risks of being conned, trouble with the law, etc..

The August report, even though dwelling on the demolition vs. education issue, rather epitomizes the general predicament of the rural migrants: for a significant section of the population, the systematic deprivation of basic needs in job, health and education, and unjustified delay and neglect in mobilizing more resources in solving the problem.

Seven years ago, Zigen workers, with a foresight and urgencies in solving the problem, made an effort to open a community activity center in the migrant neighborhood of Shahe township at the outskirt of Beijing. It was one of its kinds by then. Today, facilities with similar functions are sprouting up, thanks to the effort by other grassroots NGOs. Our community center is so adapting to the life of migrants, that itself become mobile: in 2010, due to wholesale demolition in Shahe township, the Shahe center has move to Shigezhuang and Dongxiaokou, the latter facing a planned demolition and the prospect of moving again.

The sea of public opinion is composed of individual trickles of concern and wisdom which we all contribute. There has definitely been a growing opening public space for discussion and advocacy, and for promotion of migrant rights in public policies. It is a development that Zigen donors, volunteers and workers are thrilled to witness and participate in.