Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Chinese Migrant Workers and the Economic Crisis

by M. Ulric Killion 

Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the Chinese government should ensure that it does not sacrifice the rights of about 150 million Chinese migrant workers as it prepares to cope with the ongoing economic crisis. Although during the past three decades migrant workers have served to spur economic growth, research studies conclude that migrant workers are the earliest casualties of economic downturns (HRW, 2009). According to Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW, "China's massive migrant worker population is already socially, economically, and legally marginalized and is uniquely vulnerable to the global slowdown's effects on China" (HRW, 2009).

Migrant workers wait for buses to transport them to construction sites in Beijing (© 2007 Kadir van Lohuizen/NOOR).

"A recent study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences indicates that migrants are the front-line victims of the country's economic downturn through mass layoffs in the migrant-dominated export manufacturing sector. China's Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security has indicated that up to 10 million migrants lost their jobs in 2008 due to the financial crisis. A recent study by China's Tsinghua University suggests that up to 50 million migrant workers will lose their urban jobs in 2009 if the economic downturn continues. . . Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned that the economic crisis will amplify existing human rights violations linked to China's discriminatory household registration, or hukou, system. Migrants from the countryside have long been denied social welfare benefits available to residents with urban hukou, including state-sponsored retirement pensions and medical care. Although some municipalities have temporary urban hukou programs, the majority of migrant workers remain deprived of urban hukou-related rights and benefits" (HRW, 2009).

Beijing is taking measures to address some of the problems that associate with the hukou system. For instance, in January 2008, Ma Liqiang, the deputy secretary general of China's official National Development and Reform Commission, announced that the restrictions contained in the hukou system will be eliminated by 2020, while failing to offer a specific timetable. Moreover, in November 2008, "the Beijing municipal government reinforced the discriminatory nature of the urban hukou system by announcing a system that will provide employers annual subsidies of up to 10,000 yuan (US$1,470) for employing urban hukou-holding jobseekers. That system explicitly denies the same employment opportunities to non-hukou-holding migrant workers. This measure may not deter migration to Beijing by the rural poor, and does nothing to address the plight of unregistered migrants who still live there" (HRW, 2009).

Notwithstanding the crisis of migrant workers in general, a more compelling story unfolding is ongoing crisis of women migrant workers in Mainland China. As reported by Wang Zhuoqiong (2009), "A United Nations study has found that China's young women migrant workers have been hit hardest by the economic downturn."

Wang further reported, "The crisis has severely impacted the export-oriented hubs of China's coastal region, said Max Tunon, a consultant for the International Labour Organization. Millions of young women working in these factories have been laid off or had their hours and wages slashed," he said. After overcoming the initial challenges of moving to the city, young female migrants do not wish to return home. There are few employment opportunities at home and most young people are very reluctant to work on the land." An estimated 20 million migrants are looking for work, and women migrants have felt a greater impact on job stability, working hours, wages and benefits, the study found."

"Liu Bohong, deputy director-general of the Women's Studies Institute of China, said the financial crisis and subsequent loss of income has increased pressure on families with sometimes terrible consequences, such as a rise in domestic violence. Liu emphasized the need to further promote women's education and training and to boost government support in public services to minimize the uneven gender impact of the crisis. The research was conducted between January and February and involved 533 questionnaires in Hunan province and 686 in Fujian province. It is part of the International Labour Organization's gender equality campaign and was jointly conducted with the All-China Women's Federation (Wang, 2009).

"The key findings include an imbalance of skill levels between young male and female workers in job recruiting, an increasing number of migrants within the provinces and the development of more formal channels for job-seekers. But the formal channels offer many jobs for people with higher-level skills, and many women fall short of the requirements" (Wang, 2009).


China: Economic Crisis Increases Risks for Migrant Workers, Jan. 23, 2009, HRW.

Wang Zhuoqiong, Slowdown hits women workers, May 29, 2009, China Daily.

Copyright © Protected - All Rights Reserved M. Ulric Killion, 2009.

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