China's 'first generation of migrant workers' fail to achieve generational leap

As China's migrant workers get older, it can get harder for them to find jobs, especially for those aged 50 and above. Add to that the challenges of physical limits, lack of education and general disadvantages in terms of salary and insurance, and the issue of elderly migrant workers becomes very stark.
Migrant workers wait to be approached with offers for jobs. (Internet)
Migrant workers wait to be approached with offers for jobs. (Internet)

(All images screen captures from "Three Decades of Work".)

Recently, a video about the lives of a group of migrant workers in Hefei was circulated online in China, once again highlighting the plight of elderly migrant workers. 

The 11-minute video entitled “Three Decades of Work” (《如此打工30年》) was posted on the NetEase website on 8 January. It focused on migrant workers in Hefei who show up at a labour market in the wee hours each day to wait for work.

Some wait an entire day without finding any work, some find work after much difficulty, only to receive a call along the way that the job has been cancelled; some have to take care of their children and grandchildren after a busy day.

Soon after it was posted, the documentary was deleted, and it was no longer possible to follow the NetEase account that posted the video on Bilibili. Nonetheless, some netizens who downloaded the video reposted it on their social media accounts.

The migrant workers shown in the video have trouble finding work, have inadequate social security, and find it a challenge to return home and retire, and netizens generally agree that this is a snapshot of the difficulties encountered by the "first generation of migrant workers".

“More migrant workers are unable to find work, way more than in previous years.” — Chen Huoyang, Hefei resident known for his charity work

Waiting for work to no avail

In the documentary, around a thousand migrant workers gather at the Zhougudui odd-job market in southeastern Hefei by four in the morning every day to wait for work. Most of them are middle-aged people who engage in daily-rated odd jobs without labour contracts and social security contributions. 

Dong Guilan, 57, has been working in the city for seven years. She lives with her youngest son and his family, and hopes to find work quickly to help with her son’s rental expenses. 

dong guilan
Dong Guilan described her experiences working in Hefei for seven years. (Internet)

Dong said that on most days, she heads to the odd job market at 4am. Even if she does not find work for the day, she stays there until 4pm before returning home. In the video, Dong looked somewhat anxious after not being able to find any work for a week. She is just one among the numerous migrant workers who did not manage to find work. 

The video also featured Chen Huoyang who is known locally for his charity work. Since the start of 2023, he has been providing free lunches for migrant workers at Zhougudui who did not manage to find work for the day. 

Chen said that in the beginning, only a dozen or so migrant workers came to collect the free lunch. Subsequently, the number increased to around 80, and there was even a day on which nearly 200 people queued up for the free food. “More migrant workers are unable to find work, way more than in previous years.”

NetEase News analysed that after over a decade of rapid development, the urban infrastructure in Hefei is generally complete, so fewer workers are now needed for construction work. Furthermore, many property development projects have been halted, so workers who were originally employed at these construction sites have made their way into the odd-job market. For 49-year-old woodworker Wang Shun, fewer property developers means less work.

... for the first 11 months of 2023, the aggregate new floor area under construction in China was 875 million square metres, a decrease of 21.2% year-on-year.  

hefei
Migrant workers are getting older. (Internet)

The drop in demand for construction workers is not limited to Hefei. The downturn in China’s real estate sector since last year has caused the figures for new floor areas under construction to keep falling. The numbers indicate that for the first 11 months of 2023, the aggregate new floor area under construction in China was 875 million square metres, a decrease of 21.2% year-on-year.  

The “2022 Migrant Workers Survey” (《2022年农民工监测调查报告》) published by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) of China in April 2023 showed that 17.7% of Chinese migrant workers worked in the construction industry.

... most of the migrant workers at the Zhougudui odd-job market are more than 55 years old. They are also not well-educated, with some even struggling to read, so they can only engage in laborious work like breaking down walls, demolition and cleaning. — Chen

No way out

Elderly migrant workers are increasingly unable to compete in the labour market because of their age and lack of job skills. According to Chen Huoyang, most of the migrant workers at the Zhougudui odd-job market are more than 55 years old. They are also not well-educated, with some even struggling to read, so they can only engage in laborious work like breaking down walls, demolition and cleaning. “They even have to lie about their age to get into the worksites because no one would hire someone who is above 55 years old.”  

According to the above NBS survey, 53% of the country’s nearly 300 million migrant workers are above 40 years old, with 29.2% of them above 50 years old. In terms of educational attainment, 17% of migrant workers have a high school education, while only 13.7% received tertiary education.

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Migrant workers negotiate for a job. (Internet)

Migrant workers who are above 50 years old are often collectively referred to as the "first generation of migrant workers". Qiu Fengxian is an associate professor at the Anhui Normal University who has studied migrant worker groups for a long time. According to her, this generation of migrant workers did not purchase housing in cities, so as they got older and work became harder to find, returning home to retire became their only choice.

But doing so is no mean feat as they do not have much savings. Research carried out by Qiu found that while 41.2% of those surveyed have worked for over two decades, 55.2% of them have less than 50,000 RMB (or S$9,513.7) in savings.

Additionally, this group of migrant workers also have insufficient social security. After leaving home to work for so many years, they no longer own land back home. At the same time, they do not have enough pension and medical insurance for retirement. In many rural areas, the pension is less than 300 RMB a month, so many such migrant workers return to cities in search of work for their livelihoods and families. 

In an article published by the National Governance Weekly last September, researchers from the Rural China Governance Research Centre (中国乡村治理研究中心) at Wuhan University found a clear trend of Chinese migrant workers returning home. However, their survey of a major labour-supplying county in Hubei also found that for more than 60% of the migrant workers who returned home, this was only a temporary move as they awaited new work opportunities.

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Wang Zhaoxi is a migrant worker in Hefei. (Internet)

In the NetEase documentary, 54-year-old Wang Zhaoxi shared that he has worked in the city for more than ten years. Wang has a son and a daughter, and his son had a child with his girlfriend when he was only 14 years old. Wang’s son works at another worksite and there is no one to look after his grandson who does not have a hukou (户口, household registration); his daughter is still in school. Wang said that he has to live on and “needs to work for ten more years”.

... more than 60% of their offspring ended up as migrant workers themselves, while only 5.1% found government jobs, and merely 2.9% started their own businesses.

Nothing to show for three decades of work

For the first generation of migrant workers who witnessed China’s reform and opening up, going to the cities to work carried their hopes of a better life. Professor Qiu said that other than to improve family finances, the biggest dream for this group was to achieve a generational leap by giving their offspring a university education so that their children can have a stable job or career in the cities without having to slog like them. As such, these migrant workers spent most of their savings on their children’s education and marriage.

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The gap between rural and urban areas in China remains significant. (Internet)

Interestingly, Qiu’s research found that for the majority of first-generation migrant workers, their children dropped out in secondary or high school, with fewer than 20% of their descendants making it to tertiary education. Additionally, more than 60% of their offspring ended up as migrant workers themselves, while only 5.1% found government jobs, and merely 2.9% started their own businesses.

At the same time, the inequity in rural social security as compared to that in the urban areas persists. Zmconnect (正面连接) previously reported that while the elderly in urban areas receive a monthly pension of at least 3,000 RMB on average, this falls to below 300 RMB for elderly first-generation migrant workers.     

Data from 2022 also indicated that while nearly the same number of people were enrolled in urban or rural pension insurance schemes — at 500 million and 549 million people respectively — the actual expenditure for the urban scheme amounted to 5.9 trillion RMB while that for the rural scheme was only 404.4 billion RMB. The glaring gap probably explains why migrant workers have much to worry about.

Other than the migrant workers relying on themselves for retirement then, the government also has to help make up for the shortcomings in social security and eliminate the urban-rural divide... 

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A scuffle breaks out over a job. (Internet)

All this points to the continuing vulnerability of Chinese migrant workers which has been magnified by the Covid-19 pandemic, slowing economic growth, downturn in the real estate sector, and the job market, which was not so optimistic to begin with.   

The Chinese authorities are also starting to take notice of the issue. On 5 January, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security announced the publication of its Opinions on Enhancing Job Skills Training for Migrant Workers (《关于加强农民工职业技能培训工作的意见》). The report proposed large scale and comprehensive job skills training in various forms for migrant workers to upskill them so that they can find work or start their own businesses.

The document also clearly outlined the usage and coordination of funds from employment assistance, unemployment insurance, and employee training schemes to support job skills training for migrant workers.

While government training is commendable, it also has to be pointed out that in another decade, 85 million or so migrant workers will be in their 60s. Other than the migrant workers relying on themselves for retirement then, the government also has to help make up for the shortcomings in social security and eliminate the urban-rural divide (in this regard) so as to alleviate the concerns of two generations of its people.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as "如此打工30年 后顾之忧何解?".

Related: Time is running out for China to take care of its ageing migrant workers | Plight of China's new generation of young migrant workers highlights pitfalls of labour reforms