Recently released statistics reveal another aspect of China’s challenging “hukou” social policy that will need revision to forestall what some commentators believe is an impending disaster. Since 1979, the country’s industrial revolution has caused millions of rural workers to migrate to the cities to find better paying work and improve their futures. The social policy of hukou, however, prevents them from taking their children with them. Hukou prohibits migrant parents from enrolling their children in the schools or healthcare services in their new locations. Consequently, it is estimated that there are now over 60 million Chinese children “left behind” in their ancestral village, being raised by elderly grandparents, other family or community members, or worse – raising themselves alone.
Twenty Percent of Chinese Children
According to the All-China Women’s Federation, one in five Chinese children grow up with only one or neither of their parents around. Of those 20 percent, more than one-third (38 percent) are under six years old, and almost half (48 percent) are between six and 14 years. Although half live with a single parent, one-third live with a grandparent; 11 percent with a non-family person, and a full three percent – 2.1 million children – live alone.
Many Causes Create the Situation
The social policy of hukou presents a huge hurdle to remedying the situation. Hukou, or “household registration,” was established decades ago to manage internal migration throughout the country. Declaring households as “urban” or “rural” identified the location at which they would receive social services such as education and healthcare. The intent of the policy was to contain costs and reduce the potentially devastating impact of millions of rural migrants on limited urban resources.
The actual impact of the policy, however, is being felt by those rural families. Today’s rurally raised parents, who are unwilling or unable to make a living in their rural communities, must move to the cities to find work. Hukou policies in the cities prevent these families from accessing schools and other services. Accordingly, in order for their children to go to school or obtain necessary healthcare services, many parents have been forced to leave their children behind, to be cared for by relatives or sometimes by themselves.
Unequal Earning Power
The unequal income ratios between rural and urban workers also plays a part in the “left behind child” phenomenon. China’s wage policies are determined by provincial governments, so minimum salary levels are not equal from city to city or province to province. Compensation for urban workers in smaller cities is less than it is for those workers in larger cities. (See my “Minimum Salaries” sheet here.) The urban-rural income gap is even greater, having grown wider by an estimated 68 percent since 1985. And to make this situation worse, there is also a wide disparity in the pay levels among migrant but urban-based workers and city-born urban workers. In 2011, the Chinese Ministry of Human Resources reported that the average monthly salary for migrant workers (living in cities) was A$399 while urban-registered workers doing the same job earned A$639. The lower pay rate combined with the city’s higher cost of living means that many migrant workers are forced to take additional jobs to make ends meet, including sending money home for the children. For these parents, it would be too expensive to feed and house their children in their urban community, even if they had access to schools and other services.
National Government Takes Steps Forward
Earlier this year, China’s federal government declared that it was aware of the “left behind children” issue and that it would be relaxing the hukou policies that have contributed to it. In February, migrant workers were encouraged to take their children with them to their new, urban community, or, if that was not possible, to be sure to check in on them regularly. At the same time, the government requested that rural officials begin checking up on the children and their caretakers. There was no statement regarding the potential cost to either parents or village officials who act on the recommendation, although villagers who were asked suggested that their local leaders did not have the financial resources to adopt the new practice. The national government did state that it would offer “urban” residency status to more of the migrant workers, assuming they could prove employment or housing in the urban community within the previous six months. In that case, those families would be entitled to urban-based public services.
In today’s challenging markets, finding the highest quality workers to produce the highest quality products requires careful evaluation of all labour-related details, including wage levels of factory workers.
There is more to learn about these and other “red flags” to watch for in your Chinese facilities by downloading the information here. To discuss how well your Chinese factory manages its migrant and urban labour force, contact me today.