Yi Migrant Workers in Chengdu

by on Tuesday, 27 December 2011 Comments

Though the numbers change according to economic circumstances, an estimated 150-200 million Chinese rural workers are living and working in cities. They often face discrimination in housing, education, healthcare and employment due to their temporary status, though several cities are working towards improving their conditions. Employers often take advantage of internal migrants’ vulnerable status by withholding billions of Yuan in unpaid wages. Also, school and healthcare fees have a disproportionate impact on migrant workers, whose incomes are on average lower than other urban residents. For migrant families, various additional fees make attendance at state schools unfeasible. Furthermore, most migrants in China’s cities live without health insurance, rarely visit a doctor, and only go to the hospital in the most extreme cases of illness or injury.

The above is especially true when it comes to “ethnic minority migrant workers.” Altogether, 56 "nationalities" are officially recognized in China, the Han and 55 “national minorities". The Yi nationality is one of these national minorities. The various subgroups belonging to entity are spread throughout the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou, totaling more than seven million people (five million in Yunnan, two millions in Sichuan). In Sichuan, most Yi people live in Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture. The Autonomous Prefecture covers over sixty thousand square kilometers. It comprises seventeen counties and about five hundred major villages with a total population of more than four million, more than 2 million of the inhabitants being Yi. The relative prosperity of its capital, Xichang city, does not hide the fact that the Liangshan Prefecture is the third poorest among the 30 autonomous prefectures in China. The altitude ranges on the whole from 2000 to 3000 meters, with the highest peak at 5,959 meters.

One can find migrant workers from Liangshan in most of the major cities of China. Many group together in Sichuan’s capital. There are no statistics on the number of Yi migrant workers living in Chengdu, mainly because of the very high volatility of this population (many migrants only stay a few days or a few weeks), and of the low visibility of the Yi community (Yi migrants don’t wear ethnic clothes and look very similar to other migrants). The proximity with Liangshan makes Chengdu one of the natural destinations for inexperienced migrants who want to benefit from the presence of Yi fellows in the city, and older migrants who favor the possibility of returning home regularly to take care of their family.

In contrast with the Tibetan community, Yi people in Chengdu seem very scattered. There are almost no Yi shops, only 1 or 2 Yi bars, almost no place where Yi people particularly enjoy gathering (except the Southwest University for Nationalities). The surroundings area of the two railway stations are known for attracting a number of poor Yi migrants who don’t know were to go and how to get started in Chengdu. The very poor east part of the city used to have some quasi-slums inhabited by drug-addicts, and it is said that many of them were Yi. But it seems that most Yi people in Chengdu are spread out in the city, or in suburb factories, and have relationship with small groups of friends from their native area. They are not strictly enclosed in Yi networks; on the contrary most of them also socialize with local Han people and migrants from other ethnic groups.

These photographs focus on a group of workers coming from the small township of Baiwu, the most distant part of Liangshan, in the Yanyuan district of Sichuan Province. Their ancestors’ lives consisted in farming and grazing sheep, a lifestyle that kept them working from sunrise to sunset every day. Later, through the acquaintances of relatives and friends they went to Chengdu and began to hire themselves out as workers.

As many have not even graduated from primary school and are without any special skills, most of them can only do hard physical labor, such as construction workers or furniture movers. Some also work in restaurants or as security guards. The work is strenuous, the labor very intense and income is low (around 700-800 Yuan per month or even lower, food and rent not included).

The Yi workers range in age from 20 to 40 years old, so they are carrying the twin burdens of supporting their elders and caring for their children, who sometimes number three or four (minorities are exempt from the one child policy). They still have to send money back home (around 500 Yuan per month) in order to satisfy the demanding expectations and desires of their families back in their hometowns.

To save money, several workers rent a single room together so each one only pays 50 to 60 Yuan per month. The living conditions are barely adequate and the hygiene extremely poor. They buy their own food and cook extremely simple meals themselves. When someone from the same province celebrates his birthday, everyone goes together to a small restaurant to share a meal. This is their most extravagant luxury in this big city. Sometimes they allow themselves the pleasure of going to watch a movie. Their social interactions are constricted, with little room for intimacy, but they help each other whenever one of them gets sick or has problems.

The majority of the workers who are currently working in Chengdu are satisfied with the current situation because they consider it to be better than farming in their hometown or grazing sheep. It could be better, it could be worse: the workers are generally of a placid spirit. They frankly say that although the city of Chengdu is pleasurable, bustling and lively, they are only passing by. In the end, they will return to their land where their roots are.

Working as hired men gives them an opportunity to experience another style of life, and shows them their own deficiencies and shortcomings. All the workers also assert that they will do their best to allow the future generations a greater chance to study. Although each worker has his own aspirations and expectations concerning the future, the general wish is just to earn a little more money and go back home, in order to improve their own lives and those of their families.

Minority migrant workers are often the first victims of overall economic difficulties. If their experience in the cities is to be a meaningful one, it is urgent to teach them the skills that will later on help them build a sustainable future once they are back on their land.

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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