Ethnic migrant workers in China today

by on Friday, 28 September 2007 Comments
Ethnic minority communities are experiencing the impact of social transformations at work in the whole of China. People – especially young people - leave for the cities in search of jobs. Minority villagers usually know little about life in the city, they are often handicapped by a poor knowledge of Chinese, and, consequently, face strong difficulties in making their living in a world that is totally new to them. They stay away from their village for a few weeks, a few months or a few years. After they come back they often wait for another opportunity to leave and find a job. Most often, they lack resources to engage in local development projects and have a pessimistic outlook on their future at home. In other words, the needs and difficulties faced by ethnic minority migrant workers are multifaceted: they comprise
(a) the lack or the very poor quality of the formal education received before they have left;
(b) the general problems met by migrant workers all over China (housing, working conditions, lack of work contracts, healthcare…);
(c) additional difficulties linked to their cultural and linguistic estrangement;
(d) lack of sustainable community projects at home, which also means
(e) lack of long-term perspectives and subsequent difficulty in formulating a personal project.

Migrants do bring back some (modest) financial capital and practical experience to the places where they come from, but these resources are often wasted or under utilized. In any case, their pledge is to be understood in the general context of Chinese rural migration towards the cities. An estimated 150 million Chinese rural workers are currently living and working in cities. Their number has risen rapidly and is expected to grow even further, with some estimating 300 million by 2015. The household registration system requires them to register with local authorities as temporary residents. Employers often take advantage of internal migrants’ vulnerable. School and healthcare fees have also a disproportionate impact on migrant workers. And most migrants in China’s cities live without health insurance, rarely visit a doctor.

At the same time, as the interviews recorded here show, there is a resilience and a sense of purpose in many migrant workers that should make us hope that the migration movement that is still affecting China will also enhance the creativity of the ones who are exposed to new surroundings and experiences. Better legal implementation and renewed formation structures are needed. What is especially needed is the liberation of social energy, eventually allowing for the reinforcement of real local communities, able to take in charge their own destiny.

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