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Ten Things to Know about China's Migrant Workers


This is a picture of the skyline of Pudong, the glitzy business district of Shanghai. For a time, that tall building with the hole in the top was actually the world's tallest building. It was soon beat out by the Burj in Dubai, and, as you can see, by the new building going up right beside it.

It's an amazing skyline, and I can see why someone from the West (say, a politician or journalist) might look at it and mutter something like "the West doesn't stand a chance."

What they might not realize is that everything they see was built by an army of peasants who have moved into the cities over the past few decades, fueling China's rapid and massive urbanization.

Soho Business recently published an info-graphic detailing the life and experience of these workers, titled, "The Migrant Labor Problem Urbanization Isn't Just About Building More Buildings." China File translated and published it in a post on their site titled, "The Nongmin Breakdown."

The first picture on the chart asks the question "Who Are China's Migrant Laborers?" It then gives this answer:

A uniquely Chinese social identity, the category of "rural migrant worker" is a product of China's urban/rural dichotomy. It refers to a class of citizens no longer employed in the agricultural sector who nevertheless retain their legal status as nongmin ("peasants").

Interesting facts include:

  1. "Rural Migrant Worker" is a term that describes rural workers who have moved to the cities for work, but who still retain their "peasant" classification.
  2. Because their hukou (registration) remain in the countryside, they do not have access to the same social benefits that urban residents do.
  3. 263 million Chinese are classified as "peasant laborers."
  4. 62% of those now live in cities.
  5. 32% are under the age of 32.
  6. 62% graduated from middle school.
  7. Most work for private enterprises or run their own businesses.
  8. 36% work in the manufacturing sector.
  9. Their average monthly income is RMB 2,049.00.
  10. They do not consider themselves to be urban residents.

The conclusion is spot-on:

Urbanization isn't just about real estate; it's about people. Rural migrants need to be able to put down roots in cities or the problems of urbanization will never be solved. Building more housing isn't the solution, and in the end it will just result in ghost towns.

Thanks to ChinaFile for translating and posting this. Please go here to read the whole thing.

Image credit: In the Empire of the Senses, by Shawn Clover, via Flickr

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio