Despite economic growth, China’s migrant workers face the same hardships and discrimination as Filipino migrant workers do —and it happens in their own country
A father bids a tearful farewell to his family who will wait in their provincial village for the money he will send them, accompanied by the occasional letter.
The only thing that keeps it from being a scene in a Filipino soap opera is this: The family is Chinese, and it happens in China.
China’s labor exports began with its assistance to its African brothers in the last century, and was largely accelerated by China’s booming economy and foreign direct investments in other countries since the 1990s. Unlike English-speaking overseas workers, Chinese overseas labor is primarily employed in Chinese companies or infrastructure programs contracted to China by local governments.
Another type of labor movement flows from the relatively poor Chinese mid-west to the richer eastern coastal provinces. The eastern coastal areas were the first to benefit from China’s Open and Reform Policy because of geography and history. These places were the most exposed to Western influence and investment.
Decades of economic prosperity created a new China—a fact that has become apparent even to the outside world—revolving around economically-developed eastern coastal areas like the Guangzhou and Shenzhen-centric Pearl River Triangle and the Shanghai-centric Yangtze River Triangle.
It is certain that the thirty-year economy miracle was founded primarily on a large number of laborers who mainly came from the poor mid-west provinces. Year after year, a great number of people leave their families behind in poor home towns to make a living in the coastal cities.
According to the Chinese government, there were almost 225 million migrant Chinese workers in 2008, with some 14 million of them working far from home.
They are labeled as migrant workers or farmer workers. The label contrasts them with workers originally from city, and also illustrates the big gap between rural and urban areas in China.
Nevertheless, they are still lucky compared to Filipino migrant workers since they don’t need to leave their country and drift around the world. Although already grappling with unemployment, China can absorb some of the surplus labor force from rural areas, even if these migrant workers number more than the population of the Philippines.
Still, Filipino and Chinese migrant workers share some common ground. After all, they live their lives separated from their families. It is, perhaps, a universal dream for migrant workers to at least be able come home for yearly family reunions. Much like Filipino migrant workers, not all Chinese ‘farmer workers’ can afford to travel on their low salaries, and can spend years away from home.
In some villages deep in China’s rural areas, the emigration of young laborers—leaving only the very young and the very old to tend the village—poses the threat of farmland desolation. Compared to a relatively big-city job at a factory, farming beyond subsistence presents a dead end to many Chinese.
While labor flows out of China’s rural interior, remittances flow back in. The bulk of these remittances go to sending the children to school. It is still inherent in Chinese families to hope that children can break away from their provincial lives to live in prosperity in the cities, and education is seen as the best way to do that.
Of course, some money is spent to sustain or improve family life. Houses are renovated, and filled with household appliances, and this spending, triggers the development of the hometown. A few migrant workers even return to their hometowns to run their own businesses, contributing to further development.
Alone in the Big City
Overseas Filipino workers do not hold the monopoly on stories of misery. Seen by urbanites as outsiders, Chinese migrant workers are some of the most vulnerable people in the cities. Many migrant workers are exploited by unscrupulous business owners, and have to endure unpaid overtime in poor working conditions.
Hidden behind the miracle of the rise of the Pearl River Triangle are countless tragic tales of blood and sweat. Some local governments, prioritizing economic development and self-interest, often turn a blind eye to the abuses committed by the business owners.
Despite the crucial role that migrant workers have in China’s development, they are largely excluded from urban social welfare and security systems. Because they were born in the provinces, they are not part of the city’s Hukou (household registration). This lets businesses cut costs, but leaves migrant workers to fend for themselves
The War at Home
Separation from their families has also resulted in a series of social problems. For example, some families break apart when husband and wife are kept apart for months, even years, on end.
Even more serious is the effect of migrant labor on children they left at home. Children who live in an environment without their parents are more vulnerable to problems while growing up. They tend to be antisocial, withdrawn, and have difficulty communicating. Some are eventually forced to drop out of school due to their poor academic performance. Sadly, what often drives their parents to seek work in the cities is the need to give the children a good education.
Many young people who drop out of school prematurely will go the same route as their parents did, leaving their villages to seek their fortune in the the cities.
However, as outsiders who are not part of a city’s Hukou, they are often unable to succeed economically, and have trouble integrating into the city community.
Forced to live in the city armed with skills and customs learned in their farms and fields, they are forever outsiders. Their exposure to the city also alienates them from the people in their home towns. Whether they linger on street corners or stroll around their parents’ village, they are always set apart.
As a member of a big family, I was the only one who successfully broke free of the countryside by entering university, and planting my roots in the big city. This was a point of pride for my family, and all of my cousins from the village are now trying to follow in my footsteps.
My nephew, who was sent to a boarding school and then to the city to do business, grapples with the decision to focus on academic performance or on character development. His body bears the stresses of city life, but he knows that like millions of other Chinese flocking to the city, there is no turning back.
Every Saturday in Hong Kong, you will find many Filipinos gathering in parks or other public places. Many of them are employed as household help. Early in the 1960s, the Philippine government began exporting laborers abroad as a solution to unemployment.
Today, nearly 10% of its population is working abroad, and their remittances once accounted for as much as one-fourth of the Philippine GDP. It can be concluded that the Philippine economy would probably be in more trouble without these overseas Filipino workers. Even though many people argue that the remittances actually result in excessive dependence on exported labor, and further erodes Philippine competitiveness, they remain one of the country’s biggest sources of income.
Labor export is not unique to the Philippines, and its numbers are even dwarfed when compared to China. But the social costs and monetary gains are the same. In China, as in the Philippines, the question is not so much ‘is it worth it?,’ but ‘at what price?
Print ed: 05/10