Younger and better educated migrant workers still having hard time in China

Chinese academic Han Heyuan notes that new-generation migrant workers in China are at a clear disadvantage, due to policies and systems that make it doubly hard for them to get jobs, training, and education for their children, or even find a partner.
Workers polish steel rims at a factory producing bicycle parts for export in Hangzhou, in eastern China's Zhejiang province on 18 February 2024. (AFP)
Workers polish steel rims at a factory producing bicycle parts for export in Hangzhou, in eastern China's Zhejiang province on 18 February 2024. (AFP)

In China, the "new generation of migrant workers" (新生代农民工) specifically refers to the group of young Chinese migrant workers born after 1980; the concept first appeared in the "No. 1 document" (first policy document of the year) in 2010. Today, this group numbers about 100 million and continues to grow, accounting for more than 60% of the country’s migrant workers.

As the first generation of migrant workers gradually return to their hometowns, the new generation of migrant workers will inevitably form the bulk of migrant workers and the main driver of urbanisation in the country.

... the group’s employment rate was only 75.2%...

Better educated but many difficulties

Unlike the first generation of migrant workers, the new generation of migrant workers are better educated and not that much different from their fellow countrymen born in the cities at first glance. In fact, these young people whose political identities are farmers do not identify deeply with rural agriculture and gravitate towards urban consumption patterns.

The truth is they are dislocated from rural living — objectively, they lack agricultural know-how; subjectively, their rural complex is weakened as they prefer and identify more with urban living. Nonetheless, due to myriad reasons both subjective and objective, they continue to face many difficulties as they try to carve out a life in urban areas.

First of all, unemployment among the new generation of migrant workers is a serious problem. In a study I conducted in 2022, it was found that this group faces serious employment challenges.

The study received just over 1,000 valid responses from 934 men and 97 women born after 1980, coming from rural backgrounds and working in non-agricultural jobs in cities and towns in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Suzhou, Zhengzhou and Wenzhou. About 40% had a lower middle school education, and about 66% were single.

We found that the group’s employment rate was only 75.2%; such a high unemployment rate is not only detrimental to the personal well-being of the new generation of migrant workers, but also damaging to urban-rural integration and social stability.

Looking at the reasons for unemployment, the main resistance stems from their high expectations, low tolerance and heavy family burden. Women account for a large proportion of the new generation of migrant workers. However, the low average age of women and the high rate of newlyweds in this group have led to many women facing burdens of family life such as pregnancy, breastfeeding, and caring for children, which make it difficult for them to go out and work and may also affect the employment of men in such households.

... many in the group continue to engage in low-end, decentralised wholesale and retail work as sole proprietors.

Difficulties in getting 'high-end employment'

Second, while there is significant diverse and formal employment for new-generation migrant workers, overall levels are still low. In our research, we observed that unlike in the past when new-generation migrant workers tended to work in low-end jobs and a smaller mix of industries, their employment has become more diversified, specialised and formalised.

For example, they are no longer constrained to peddling their wares, cleaning, or construction work, but have moved on to commercial services, manufacturing or transportation jobs. At the same time, more of them have attained “high-end employment” through taking on professional, technical, or leadership positions. However, this transformation is still in its infancy as many in the group continue to engage in low-end, decentralised wholesale and retail work as sole proprietors.

This shows that although the new generation of migrant workers have significantly better academic qualifications and overall qualities as compared to their predecessors, they are still disadvantaged when it comes to competing with local residents for employment.

At a time when even university graduates find it difficult to land jobs, it is even more challenging for new-generation migrant workers with lower educational attainments to be recruited by popular employers such as party and government agencies, state-owned enterprises, and foreign companies, so that their employment rate is generally low.

... due to the household registration system, new-generation migrant workers face difficulties in applying for business permits, personal credit, and financing.

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Workers in Guangxi wait for trains to go back to work during the Chinese New Year period, on 15 February 2024. (CNS)

Third, employment restrictions are real. During our investigation, we found that due to the household registration system, new-generation migrant workers face difficulties in applying for business permits, personal credit, and financing. In fact, they even face obvious unfair treatment in employment. For example, one needs to have a local hukou (household registration) to become a ride-hailing service provider in Beijing.

Poor labour and social security conditions

Fourth point: labour and social security for the new generation of migrant workers are getting worse. Although they enjoy better working hours with eight-hour work days and lower work intensity by having two days off each week, fewer of them are signing labour contracts and participating in the social security scheme. The proliferation of outsourced and hourly-rated workers shows that labour and social security are deteriorating for new-generation migrant workers.

Fifth point: the new generation of migrant workers faces a dilemma in housing. First of all, although they have a strong desire to integrate, the main dilemma is the affordability of housing due to high property prices versus low incomes.

Survey data shows that the vast majority of new-generation migrant workers can only afford to buy housing that costs less than 5,000 RMB (US$695) per square metre. Therefore, even if there is a large supply of housing units, the demand from this group would still be weak given their low incomes.

... the new generation of migrant workers are excluded from affordable housing.

Secondly, new-generation migrant workers are also excluded from the housing security scheme. Since 2006, the State Council, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, the National Development and Reform Commission, and other departments have successively issued relevant policy documents and put forward relevant guidance to help solve the housing problem of migrant workers.

However, due to fragmentation and the lack of continuity of the policies, their implementation is restricted by many factors, thus compromising their effectiveness. As a result, the new generation of migrant workers are excluded from affordable housing.

Point six: starting a family is not easy for new-generation migrant workers, mainly because it is difficult to befriend members of the opposite gender. First, new-generation migrant workers work long hours and do not have time to get to know members of the opposite gender; second, they have few holidays due to the possibility of overtime work during the May Day and National Day holidays, so that there is insufficient leisure time left for them.

Third, they are less likely to participate in social activities. Since their jobs mostly involve manual labour and use up a lot of physical energy, they often choose to use their limited rest time to recover from physical and mental exhaustion, thus reducing their chances of befriending suitable members of the opposite sex during non-working hours. Fourth, workspaces for male and female employees differ due to different types of employment, so there are few opportunities for making friends and developing relationships. Fifth, they cannot afford the costs of dating.

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Workers work on a production line manufacturing false eyelashes at a workshop of Monsheery, in Pingdu, Shandong province, China, on 16 November 2023. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)

Point seven: it is difficult for new-migrant workers to raise children in cities. Due to the current household registration system, their children are excluded from the compulsory education security system in cities. Although local education authorities do provide certain quotas in public schools for the children of new-generation migrant workers, they come with numerous restrictive conditions, which means that most such children are unable to go to public schools in urban areas. Consequently, they are either left behind in their hometowns or forced to attend private schools in cities that charge high fees but do not necessarily provide quality schooling.

... new-generation migrant workers also face a crisis once they reach the age of 45, as employers do not recruit workers who are older than that...

A preference for younger workers

Point eight: new-generation migrant workers also face a crisis once they reach the age of 45, as employers do not recruit workers who are older than that; this is most obvious in the service, manufacturing, and logistics industries. The most senior members among the new generation of migrant workers turned 43 in 2023, which means that in the next few years, members of the new generation of migrant workers will also be forced to gradually withdraw from the city and return to their hometowns as they can no longer find work in urban areas.

The difficulties encountered by the new generation of migrant workers are due to multiple factors both subjective and objective. It is undeniable that they themselves are also an important reason for their predicament. Although many in this group have high school or even higher vocational diplomas, most of them are unskilled and only hold worthless paper qualifications. In addition, the vast majority of them admit that they do not have clear goals and plans, and that they have no motivation to improve their professional abilities through further studies.

Temporary workers not immigrants

In addition to subjective reasons, there are also objective factors. Among them, systemic factors are key.

First, the predicament caused by the long-term implementation of the urban-rural dual household registration system. Even though it is undeniable that the migration of youth from the countryside to the urban areas has left China’s rural areas without labour, we should also realise that the dual household registration system is actually a guise for urban-rural segregation. Going by the collectivist exclusion theory proposed by sociologist Frank Parkin, the household registration system effectively excludes migrant workers from cities.

Under such a system, locals and local governments lack recognition for migrant workers. In particular, local authorities lack the motivation to include outsiders in their provision of public services. This is precisely why young workers from rural areas are treated as merely workers and not immigrants — they are people who are looking for work, and not people who are allowed to settle in the city as immigrants.

... companies are unwilling to provide training for migrant workers out of concern about their mobility...

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Workers are seen on scaffolding at a railway station construction site in southwestern China's Chongqing municipality on 18 February 2024. (AFP)

The effect of the household registration system on the labour market is first reflected in its impact on labour quality.

The system first restricts both the government and workers from making human capital investments in the labour force — government spending on education is based on hukou, and individuals without the necessary hukou cannot be provided with equal education opportunities.

At the same time, companies are unwilling to provide training for migrant workers out of concern about their mobility — since they do not have local hukou, migrant workers are unable to access necessary public services and social security, and hence lack a sense of belonging, so they are more inclined to move among different cities.

The household registration system harms the vocational training of employers, which in turn affects human capital investment in individuals. It is this exclusionary education system that affects the quality of China’s labour force. This has consequently become an obstacle in its economic transformation and upgrading.

Social stratification and spatial fragmentation

This means that migrant workers, including the new generation of migrant workers, can only remain at the bottom of society to take on the simplest jobs after entering cities. This indirectly deprives them of the opportunity to move up in society and makes it difficult for them to settle down.

In addition, the strong influence of the household registration system over resource allocation and benefit distribution has exacerbated social stratification.

The sluggish reform of the system has further reinforced the urban-rural dual structure between non-agricultural and agricultural households, and the formation of a dual structure between local and migrant populations in the cities. As a result, migrant workers now make up a third-dimensional social structure in the nation that is neither urban nor rural.

Household registration barriers between different regions have also caused differentiation in public administration services and society, resulting in a tendency of spatial fragmentation throughout China.

... new-generation migrant workers are either unaware of social security in the city or think they have little need for it because they feel they have land in their hometowns to fall back on.

These outcomes are further illustrated by the conundrum caused by the social security system. The social security system, which is closely linked to the dual household registration system, has also deeply restricted the way of thinking of new-generation migrant workers.

Traditionally, farmers rely on their lands to survive. Under the dual household registration system, new-generation migrant workers are either unaware of social security in the city or think they have little need for it because they feel they have land in their hometowns to fall back on. Furthermore, their little understanding of social security is also due to the poor continuity and mobility of long-term urban and rural social security schemes as migrant workers move from place to place.

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