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Confronting Discrimination and Inequality in China

Errol P. Mendes
Sakunthala Srighanthan

Part one. Discrimination against Rural and Migrant Workers

Chapter Four. Changing the Policy Paradigm on Chinese Migrant Workers

Towards Balanced Urban and Rural Development, People-Orientation, Equal Treatment and Consultative Management

Cui Chuanyi et Cui Xiaoli

Texte intégral

1The exodus of the rural labour force to work in the non-agricultural industries of cities and towns, part of China’s process of reform and opening-up (gaige kaifang) and industrialization, has engendered a large new social group called the “migrant workers.” The effects of the previous planned economy, its system of urban-rural segregation and ideologies that emphasized economic growth rather than social development and welfare improvement have all become prejudicial to the lives of migrant workers: migrant workers’ legitimate rights have been infringed, their fair treatment as citizens denied, and their interests and needs forgotten in public policies. These increasingly pronounced problems have become obstacles to urban-rural development and social harmony. To adapt to a market economy and urbanization in the new century, China has proposed a scientific approach to development and has aggressively transformed migrant worker-related policies to make them more oriented to the people and to guarantee their fair treatment. But policies alone cannot be solutions. Public policy formulation and implementation are related to the social management system. Currently, what needs to be explored and addressed is the way to continue making policy adjustment and improvement, and how to reform the social management system, in order to create an institutional environment that protects the legitimate rights of migrant workers and offers them a stable urban citizenship.


2Before China’s reform and opening-up, economic planning and urban-rural segregation led to national development based on heavy industry and restriction on the movement and migration of rural labour. Farmers, who account for 80 percent of the Chinese population, were confined to rural land with a low per capita average income to carry out a single activity: agricultural production. Added to that was the rural People’s Commune system – under which the farmers were granted very few property and democratic rights – which further prolonged under-development and poverty within the rural community. Hence, the first target for recent reforms was the rural community. With implementation of the household contract system and progression of the market-oriented reforms from urban to rural areas, farmers were granted property rights as well as the freedom of surplus labour to change occupation. Motivated to reduce poverty and accumulate personal wealth, farmers began developing township enterprises and the private sector in the rural areas. However, many farmers in the vast central or western traditional agricultural regions were unable to do so because of multiple restraints. Hence, they chose to leave home to find employment in the cities. These are the two sources of migrant workers, who continue to retain their rural household registrations (farmer identity) while being employed in secondary or tertiary industries, receiving wages as their main source of income. The group has expanded along with ongoing industrialization, including the inflow of local and foreign capital. Migrant workers are now an integral component of the industrial workforce, and a major force in the labour-intensive secondary and tertiary industries. This strengthened force has facilitated industrialization, urbanization and reform. In nearly three decades of reform and opening-up, China has become the centre for global investment and labour-intensive manufacturing industries, and the creator of the miracle of sustained and rapid economic growth. It has also transitioned from a planned economy to a market economy, and has leapfrogged from merely meeting basic needs to becoming a complete xiaokang society (“society of modest means”). These achievements could not be accomplished without the contribution from the over 200 million Chinese migrant workers.

3The massive influx of migrant workers affects the livelihood and development of millions, as well as China’s overall development, reform and stability. As of 2006, the number of migrant workers employed in township enterprises was 146 million, having grown from 28 million at the start of the reform. The number that has migrated across regions and worked in cities has increased from about two million to 132 million. Excluding any duplication and the number of part-time workers whose main occupation is in farming, the total number is approximately 220 million. This implies that nearly half the rural labour force has moved into non-agricultural industries. More than 200 million of their family members and children were left behind in the rural areas, and approximately two million have followed them to the destination city. For these reasons, the overall situation for migrant workers has a direct impact on the survival and development of 400 to 500 million people.

  • 1 Labour movement has caused the perpetual oversupply of labour in the coastal areas under rapid gro (...)

4Migrant workers account for 60 percent of the people employed in the commercial, food and beverage, and service sectors, 70 percent in processing and manufacturing, and 80 percent in construction. Their main contributions to Chinas socio-economic development are: (1) Facilitating Chinas industrialization, urbanization and internationalization, and the transformation of an agricultural power into an industrial, commercial and service power; (2) Opening up an avenue for farmers to assuage poverty and find wealth, and initiating a glorious chapter in Chinese history on the diversion of the rural labour force into industry, which has had a profound impact on the progress of modernization; (3) Enhancing corporate competitiveness, hastening capital accumulation, and creating mutual reinforcement between the development of enterprise and industry and the employment of migrant workers who are typically young, diligent and low-cost. Migrant workers are one of the key catalysts for China’s rise to the most attractive country for foreign investment and a global manufacturing and trade power1; (4) The concentration of migrant workers in developed areas and cities has propelled the development of the industrial, commerce and service sector. Migrant workers have been hard at work, constructing skyscrapers and transportation networks that connect rural and urban areas, and contributing to the emergence of large number of new cities and towns, and the formation of the three urban clusters: the Pearl River Delta, the Yangtze River Delta and the Bohai Sea Rim regions; (5) Tearing down the urban-rural dualistic structure to enable reform of the traditional employment and hiring systems; enabling the nurture of a uniform labour market across the urban and rural areas, and extensive restructuring of vital resources to meet industrialization and restructuring needs; forging close socio-economic ties between the urban and rural communities, which in turn has contributed to the development of rural areas; (6) Promoting reform of the dual social management system. Although migrant workers’ migration to cities is driven by economic objectives such as greater employment opportunities and income, migrant workers are also social beings and citizens who work and have social needs such as the needs to live, develop, dwell, seek medical treatment, learn and be trained, as well as requiring education for their children, social participation and urban permanent residences. However, the tradition of urban-rural segregation, the dual household registration system, and the associated public service and welfare systems have excluded migrant workers’ needs. This has led to unequal status and prejudiced rights. Therefore, breaking the dual social structure and creating a system conducive to structural changes are imperative.


5The formation of the migrant worker population and the flow of surplus rural labour into non-agricultural industries and cities are indeed driven by the pursuit of self-interest, in the form of better employment and income. But desire is not all that makes things tick. The market behaviour of the workers is determined by labour demand, and this in turn is related to the need to progress from an agricultural society to a modern industrial society. But, for some time, reform was restricted to strictly economic aspects. Relative to the formation and expansion of the migrant worker population during the process of industrialization, there was a lag in the reshaping of the pertinent policies and the social management system, as there were many dimensions that were still based upon the planned economy and the urban-rural dual structure. These dated policies and systems needed to be brought into line with the new economic regime, and recalibrated to accommodate the flow of the rural labour force, the newly created labour market and the social demographic changes induced by the rural labour movement between urban and rural areas. The migrant worker policies were not fundamentally changed until the 21st century. For the purpose of this article, the author refers to the policies in force at the end of the 1980s and in the 1990s as old policies, to differentiate them from the new policies on migrant workers formulated in recent years, especially those relating to the migrant workers’ employment in the cities.

  • 2 In June 1997, a pilot program proposal by the State Council on the administration of household reg (...)
  • 3 In November 1993, Decisions on Several Issues regarding the Establishment of the System of the Soc (...)
  • 4 See Jiang Wensheng, "Protection of Migrant Workers’ Rights and Interests: Policy Shifts and Prospe (...)

6On the issue of migrant worker policies of the 1990s, we can look broadly at two aspects: one aspect concerns policies that encouraged the development of diversified ownership enterprises, such as township enterprises and the private sector of the economy in rural areas, the transfer of surplus rural labour to the nearest available jobs, or the migration of workers to small towns below the county level for work or business.2 The other aspect concerns policies on the movement of the rural labour force to the cities and migrant workers’ employment in the cities that were not adapted to development and the situation of reform. Though there were occasional affirmative comments on migrant workers working in the cities,3 the policies of the State were generally restrictive, usually in the name of providing systematic guidance.4

7On policies in the 1990s relating to migrant workers: between 1989 and 1991, the policies in practice aimed to strictly control and “block” city-bound migrant workers. Thereafter, rural labour movement was administratively controlled and restricted, using economic, legal and administrative means. For example, the Provisional Regulations on the Cross-Provincial Movement and Employment of Rural Labour and Opinions on Strengthening the Administration of Migrant Population issued by State authorities in 1994 and 1995 adopted a standard employment and temporary residential permit system. Migrant workers were required to have valid temporary documents, the “Emigrant Employment Registration Card” (waichu renyuan jiuye dengji ka) and the “Emigrant Employment Permit” (waichu renyuan jiuye zheng), as well as the temporary residence permit (refer to Table 1). As of 1994, some local governments in the coastal areas formulated their own local policies for the migrant worker population in their regions and cities. These policies were aimed at controlling the overall size of the migrant worker population, as well as the industry and employment categories in which migrants can work. Migrant worker administration is undertaken by the municipal office for migrant population, which issues and inspects certificates – charging expensive fees – and identifies and even deports those without the “three certificates.”

Table 1: Policies on Migrant Workers at the End of the 1980s and 1990s

Time of Issuance


Policy Highlights

March 1989

Urgent Notice Issued by the General Office of the State Council on the Strict Control of Outflow of Migrant Workers

Local governments adopt effective measures to strictly control the outflow of local rural labour.

April 1989

Notice by the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the Ministry of Public Security on Continuing Control over the Rush Outflow of Migrant Workers

Strictly control the excessive outflow of local rural labour.

April 1990

Notice by the State Council on Improving Labour Employment Administration

Encourage surplus rural labour to “leave farming but not home.” Develop forestry, husbandry, fishery and sideline industries, township enterprises, service industry and construction of the rural area to absorb and transfer surplus labour locally and prevent a large rural labout force from leaving for the cities indiscriminately to seek employment. Employ legal, administrative and economic means to exercise effective control and strict rule over migrant workers working in the cities. Formulate plans for the employment of the rural labour force in the cities within a specific period, for which it shall be reviewed and approved by the labour departments to ensure strict control. Establish temporary employment permit and employment registration system to tighten the monitoring and checks on employment operations. Hiring outside the existing plan definitions, particularly rural labour, shall cease as provided by State policy. Strict control of excessive increase in city-bound rural labour migration.

Key characteristics of the 1990s policy paradigm:

1. Planned economy-engendered administrative control and restriction

8Farmers’ willingness to migrate and enterprises’ willingness to hire were regarded as “blind movement” (mang liu), and the total migration number was capped by a planned “quota.” This quota was redistributed downwards, and employment operations of enterprises were subject to review and approval by the administrative departments. Special permits and cards for outflow and inflow of the rural labour force were required, such that migrant workers were required to apply for an emigration employment permit at a home location as well as an immigration employment card at the destination. Review and issuance of such certifications were means employed by the government to exercise “control by quota” and restriction. Without the government’s review and approval, enterprises’ hiring was deemed “unapproved recruitment and employment,” and without the necessary documents, migrant workers’ employment was labelled “blind movement,” both offences would be subject to punishment, and the employment revoked. Through such planned policies, the government tried to keep the control and decision-making for floating employment centralized at the administrative organs. The original intention was to eliminate indiscriminate labour movement. Unfortunately, without understanding the manpower requirements of different employers and the personal profiles and preferences of migrant workers, the government had interfered blindly, not having to be held accountable for the risks involved. Instead of keeping a disciplined labour movement, such intervention had prejudiced the independence of the farmers and the employers, and frustrated the market mechanism. In addition, migrant workers were required to apply for a temporary residence permit, employment card and certificate, health certificate and marriage certificate, for which they would be charged as high as RMB 400 to 700 every year. As well, permit application, charges, certificate verification and fines related to the administrative procedures impeded movement, and therefore employment, of migrant workers.

2. Urban-rural dualistic division and unequal identity and rights constituted discrimination

9The trans-regional movement of farmers for employment in the cities sloughed off regional isolation and urban-rural segregation instituted under the traditional system. Migrant workers provide labour for enterprises seeking to hire, participate in economic growth and receive income. However, certain policies remained restrictive, tending to keep the rural labour force within their local confines, and perpetuate the unequal rights as manifested under the agricultural and non-agricultural hukous (household registration). Employers recruiting were to observe the rules of “Three Firsts and Three Lasts” (sanxian sanhou), which means the recruitment of candidates in the following order of priority: local township hukous, local rural hukous, migrant workers from the same province, and migrant workers from other provinces. Special charges for processing permits for migrant workers were instituted as a means of control. Only urban residents were eligible to benefit from employment services provided in the urban areas for the general public and government-sponsored labour markets. Migrant workers did not qualify. Migrant workers without the necessary documents – in some cases, even those with the necessary documents – would be deported; certain cities required employers to pay administration fees for employing migrant workers. The list goes on. Founded on the dual household registration system and unequal rights, such policies were discriminatory.

10The cities classify industries and jobs into three categories: those inaccessible to migrant workers, those with restricted access, and those with access. Migrant workers’ employment opportunities were therefore extremely restricted; usually jobs that were available for them were dirty, tiring, tough and dangerous. Most industries and jobs were reserved for people with urban hukous. Under the pretext of protecting the urban unemployed and laid-off workers, the urban-rural divide in employment treatment was perpetuated, and institutional discrimination against farmers and stratification of the rural and urban residents exacerbated. Also, employed migrant workers in the city were not treated as fellow urbanites. They were instead marginalized and discriminated against and excluded from public services such as housing, children’s education, medical care and social security. The dual system was extended into the city following the flow of migrant workers to the cities. Hence a social divide was created whereby unequal rights existed between city dwellers and migrant workers.

3. Prevention and Control

11Migrant workers were treated as a potential threat to social order and security. Social security is a common need of urban residents, enterprises and migrant workers. Many factors may hamper social safety, including emerging problems during social transformation and institutional reform, absence of proper coordination mechanism, and infringements upon the interest of migrant workers. However, although the wages of farmers migrating to work in the cities is lower than that of the urban average income, they are still higher than than the rural average income. As such, instead of destabilizing, migrant workers could contribute to stability and development. However, there was a belief that the rural labour movement was indiscriminate and disorganized, and that if left unchecked, it could cause instability. On this premise, the migrant worker policies were very much focused on the maintenance of public security. The fact that the administration offices for migrant population affairs were under the jurisdiction of public security departments attests to the official presumption that migrant workers were potentially dangerous to the urban society. Such a focus on the prevention of public disturbance resulted in the neglect of the interests and demands of the migrant workers themselves. Migrant workers became a target for increases in measures of social order, including mandatory background checks. Residential districts with a dense migrant worker population were often targets of inspection, verification, fines, repression, and expatriation. Together with local residents, migrant workers created wealth, and became owners of the society and direct or indirect taxpayers. The paradox was their inappropriate treatment, subject and targeted for purposes of regulation and control.

4. Multi-Department Policies Lacked in Consistency

12Development of the market economy and the migration of farmers to urban areas has integrated the urban and rural labour markets. Institutional regulations such as employment rights, personal freedom of citizens, and related administrative charges should have been governed by standard State policies and laws. Nevertheless, for some time, policies governing migrant workers were issued by many different authorities. Some municipal government departments enacted regulations that limited the industrial sectors or types of jobs in which migrant workers were eligible to work, with which they actually deprived them of the right to work in certain sectors. Also, the extradition of migrant workers to their homes was in violation of the laws. Our investigation of a city in August 2003 showed that different districts within the city applied different charges for migrant worker permits: nine for temporary residence permits, ten for employment permits, and six for health certificates. Different authorities making up different regulations unchecked by laws have led to chaos in policies and administrative operations, and serious prejudice of migrant workers’ interests.

13The incompatibility of migrant worker policies during this period with the market economy, with the movement of rural surplus labour to non-agricultural industries and cities, and with industrialization and urbanization came ultimately to determine their limitations and unsustainability.

14First, in the context of China’s development, the policies failed to capture the true implications of migrant workers being a new genre of labour force in China’s industrialization and the social significance of the change in the rural-urban divide embodied by the migrant workers. The movement of Chinese farmers seeking employment to the cities is an economic behaviour. Migrant workers are not immigrants who stay idle or beg, or create a “crime wave” and therefore must be restrained and controlled. They are a surplus labour force that had been confined to meagre farmlands by the planned economy, the public commune system and urban-rural segregation. Their behaviour was the result of emancipation from the reform of the household contract system. As individuals, they were workers looking for jobs in the cities to earn money; as a group, they were a surplus labour force struggling to make a living by joining in the process of industrialization. This was also exactly the need of the developed regions and cities. Industrialization required us to capitalize on our labour resource advantage to improve our current lack of competitiveness, build up assets and develop businesses. By combining migrant workers’ labour input and production factors, domestic and foreign industrial and commercial enterprises generated and developed new productive forces. Through hard work, migrant workers had driven industrialization; this went on to trigger the flow of the surplus agricultural labour forces. Migrant workers became an increasingly integral part of the non-agricultural labour sector, and a new genre of labour in Chinas industrialization process. An increasing rural labour force and rural population were moving into non-agricultural sectors and into the cities as a result of industrialization. This became a force of change for the urban-rural divide. Rural areas benefited from increased farmers’ income as well as improved agricultural resource allocation in people and land. The result was less self-sufficiency and greater commercialization, giving impetus to agricultural and rural modernization.

15Migrant worker policies continued to segregate rural from urban dwellers, and restricted farmers only to agricultural activities; even if they did otherwise, they could only do so in nearby areas, and were prohibited from moving around or going to the cities. Such restrictions ran against the patterns of change and the need to transfer the surplus labour force, and the needs for industrialization and urbanization. Regarding migrant workers as a threat to the employment opportunities of urbanités, and therefore restricting their movements and occupation choice, is an example of the old notion of urban-rural segregation and unequal employment rights for urban and rural populations. In truth, it was the demands of the industrial, commercial and service sectors that prescribed the entry of migrant workers. To allow jobs shunned by urbanites to be carried out by migrant workers was the filling of mutual needs and wants. The existence of competition for employment within the labour force benefits development, allowing labourers to give their best and receive what they deserve. The enlarging migrant worker population was not a result of snatching employment opportunities from urban residents. For, the huge employment opportunities were generated by the combination of local and foreign capital and other factors with the rural labour force driving industrialization. Migrant workers are integral to the era of the need for labour services and industrialization. They are a new breed of workers emanating from the surplus labour force in the rural areas, and they should be incorporated into the process of industrialization, of which cities are the main vehicles. This determines that the dated policy of urban-rural segregation cannot continue.

16Secondly, migrant worker policies were not standardized according to the mechanisms of market economy reform and market-driven employment. Under the traditional planned economy, the government was responsible only for employment in urban non-agricultural activities, and in state-run and large collective enterprises. Such policies were highly centralized and planned, and farmers’ movements were under strict control. The machinery for allowing farmers to migrate to cities to work was founded during reform, when farmers were granted freedom to distribute their labour and to migrate for work, and when enterprises were given the autonomy to hire. Farmers normally obtain from relatives, friends or fellow villagers information on urban employment opportunities. Migrant workers and enterprises are on the two sides of supply and demand in the labour market, which are granted free and bilateral choices to create jobs and hiring decisions. Such market-determined employment is fundamentally different from the system under the planned economy. For farmer households or farmers and enterprises exercise the power of independent decision, and the benefits of being employed and employing are directly related to migrant workers and employers. Under the planned economy, administrative orders planned and arranged employment. The policy continued to determine the size and quota of migrant worker movement using administrative orders, as well as restricted the movement of migrant workers and hiring by enterprises via review and approval procedures. Such administrative controls cannot accommodate the demands of workers and enterprises, and they fail to converge with requirements of the market economy and market-determined employment. Administrative departments were unable to curb the outflow of migrant workers in pursuit of poverty alleviation and wealth; neither could they deprive enterprises of the right to operate nor to hire as they deem fit. Market-driven employment may be curbed, but migrant worker employment could not be stopped. During the mid 1990s, although the higher authorities in the Pearl River Delta region were controlling the inflow of migrant workers and dictating the staff size and quota of enterprises, and distributing these targets downwards, eventually the enterprises came to have the final say. In order to stimulate economic development and attract foreign investment, local governments relaxed restrictions on foreign enterprises’ right to hire. Subsequently, other enterprises were allowed to hire as many migrant workers as they needed, eventually exceeding the quota prescribed by the higher authorities. This was a de facto invalidation of the administrative controls. Administrative controls eventually consisted only of permit fees chargeable to migrant workers and migrant workers administrative fees chargeable to employers.

17Thirdly, the policies caused government administrative dysfunction, “inversion” of the “official-citizen” relationship, unregulated administrative behaviour and public discontent. Government interference in certain issues related to migrant workers and their situation at the location of employment may be unnecessary. However, the government should provide services and governance, such as providing employment information, protecting labour rights and labour interests, setting up social security, and assistance in housing, medical care, children’s education, and safety in the work and living environments. The old policies, while imposing excess restriction and regulation, lacked in service and protection. Protection of the migrant workers’ legitimate rights was considered secondary. Such policies served two key priorities: first, they restricted the movement of migrant workers. This is a government dysfunction under market driven employment. Migrant workers’ movements are not subject to past economic constraints under the collective economy such as working collectively, earning “credits” based on the amount of work, and receiving food allocation based on work-points accumulated. Nor is there difficulty posed by the food-coupon system if they leave for the city. Administrative regulations were their only barriers. Under such regulations, approvals and permits were required, and administrative fees had to be paid. Further measures included shaking-down and extradition if the required certificates were incomplete. However, migrant workers were resistant to such restrictions, believing that they were making an honest living. Most migrant workers who were removed from their jobs did not leave the city unless they were forcibly deported. Even so, they often escaped during their journey home. The second priority was that of controlling the migrant workers. Although based on the premise of providing better public security, such controls in fact inverted the official-citizen relationship. Migrant workers are labour providers for developed regions and the development of the urban economy, they are the main force in the production front line, and they are direct or indirect taxpayers. Governments who depend on taxpayers to provide the funds for publicly financed operations should provide public services not only for urban residents but also for migrant workers. Instead, migrant workers were regarded as the cause of social disorder and instability, and the trigger for restrictive rule over them. In reality, most migrant workers are law-abiding citizens, but they are main target of infringement of rights. Migrant workers should be protected as they constitute a contributing force for societal safety. To generalize migrant workers as potential threats to public security and to regard them as persons to guard against and to be controlled is discrimination. Certain measures such as inspections, controls and deportation are infringements of their legitimate rights, and detrimental to social integration of migrant workers with existing urban residents. Together, these would manipulate the whole society, leading to high social administration costs and difficulty in the thorough renewal of social order and public security. Since administrative overheads for employment and security are derived from the administrative targets, government departments become interest-driven and their administrative behaviour unregulated. Other repercussions include multiple administrators and overcharging, which result in greater social chaos.


18Since the beginning of the 21st century, the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the State government have placed heavy emphasis on migrant worker-related issues. Fundamental policy changes have taken place. The various factors leading to such changes are: first, growth in the number of migrant workers during reform and development, increase in migrant workers’ income, and change in public practices due to industrialization and urbanization. Second, China’s adoption of a people-oriented scientific conception that proposes comprehensive, balanced and sustainable development. As part of the overall strategy to drive industrialization and urbanization, China is addressing issues related to sannong (issues of agriculture, farmers and the countryside), including giving due recognition to the status of migrant workers, and devising improved policies.

19The commendable contributions to socio-economic development by migrant workers have facilitated public awareness and policy changes. During the 1990s, trans-regional migration to the cities was the main form of transfer of rural surplus labour. During this period, an additional 36 million were transferred to nearby township enterprises, migrant worker numbers increased by about 50 million, from 36 million to 83 million. Tens of millions of farmers left their lands and the countryside to work in towns and factories, driving industrialization and urbanization at a faster speed. Statistics of the fifth national census in 2000 show that migrant workers account for 58 percent of employees in secondary industry, 52 percent in tertiary industry, 68 percent in processing and manufacturing and 80 percent in construction. At one end of the employment spectrum, migrant workers serve as a vital workforce in cities and developed regions, strengthening industrial competitiveness, supporting industrial growth, and promoting urban development and prosperity. On the other end, having their roots in villages and under-developed regions, they have expanded job opportunities for farmers and provided a vital source of increased income. This has pushed optimal labour resource allocation between the urban and rural areas, and integrated the solutions for sannong issues with industrialization and urbanization. In doing so, they have charted a new path for the integrated development of rural and urban areas. As such, the contributions and status of migrant workers in socio-economic development were becoming apparent.

20However, in spite of their huge contributions, migrant workers were still subject to difficult work and living conditions and were socially disadvantaged. This has now become a striking issue that has to be addressed at the policy level. Here are some of the problems they face: low and stagnant wages for many years; often delayed or defaulted wage payments; poor working conditions and serious lack of labour protection; often working overtime with excessive workload and no overtime pay; absence of social security and burdened by insurance issues throughout their lifetime; poor housing and difficulty providing education for their children; labour rights subject to frequent infringements and difficult access to relief; hukou restriction which prevents migrant workers with stable jobs from enjoying equal rights of a citizen. Many of these issues point to the severity of migrant worker-related problems that must be addressed urgently.

21The CPC and the government are giving high priority to addressing the increasingly prominent migrant worker issues and the infringement of migrant worker rights during reform and industrialization. Some of the issues to be addressed are the comparatively low increase in farmers’ income, the expanding urban-rural divide, the balance between urban and rural development, and addressing the sannong issues. Since 1997, annual per capita net income growth of farmers has been declining. As at 2003, the target of 5 percent annual increase rate proposed in the tenth five-year plan had not been reached. The income gap between the urban and rural residents rose to 3.23:1 and the real consumption gap exceeded 5:1. A basic limiting factor on rural income is underemployment. The solution would seem to be the promotion of the movement of rural labour to the cities, amid the drives for industrialization and urbanization. The CPC Central Committee holds that employment is the source of livelihood and therefore absorption of surplus rural labour through industrialization and urbanization is a strategy to resolving the sannong issues, thus gradually transforming the urban-rural dual structure. For that purpose, migrant worker policies should be adapted to accommodate increasing industrialization and urbanization. Also, the policies should be adapted to the market economy. Secondly, in 2001, at the CPC Central Committee Conference on Economic Affairs, it was pointed out that farmers’ trans-regional migration to cities for employment meets the needs of urban-rural communication, economic development and the market economy and, therefore, that policies should not be restrictive or discriminatory. Thirdly, the government should reconstitute its functions and provide public services, address problems closely related to farmers’ and migrant workers’ interests, facilitate and provide services for migrant workers’ employment in the cities and safeguard their legitimate rights and interests. This will increase urban and rural employment, raise public income and achieve universal affluence. To support this strategy, migrant worker policies should be adjusted to focus on the protection of rights and the creation of a favourable employment environment.

22In the new century, the policies have been changed substantially: from being restrictive to encouraging, and focusing on the protection of rights and the creation of a favourable employment environment for migrant workers. Chinese public policies are reoriented to become people-centred, fair and aimed at achieving a balanced urban-rural development. In 2001, a review was conducted, and, except for the permit processing fee, all administrative charges were revoked. In 2002, the “Fair Treatment, Reasonable Guidance, Sound Rule, and Good Service” principle was proposed to eliminate institutions and policies obstructing urbanization, and provide guidance to the rural labour force for rational and orderly migration. In 2003, for the first time in history, the General Office of the State Council issued the Notice Concerning Providing Administrative Services to Farmers Migrating to Towns for Employment, a comprehensive document on facilitating the farmers’ search for employment in towns. The Notice requested that local governments unshackle themselves from outmoded mindsets, remove unreasonable restrictions on migrant workers, resolve the problems of delays and default of wages, improve migrant workers’ living and working conditions, and provide training services and expanded schooling provisions for migrant workers’ children. The State Council’s Regulations on the Insurance of Employment Injuries provided for insurance benefits for migrant workers for the first time. The Measures on Providing Shelters for and Sending Back the Tramps and Beggars from Cities was revoked. Other policies included the responsibilities of the local governments of the migration destinations to provide compulsory education – mainly in full-day public primary and middle school – for migrant workers’ children; allocation of special funds by local financial departments to support the training of migrant workers; and the proposition of the integration of the urban and rural labour markets in phases to establish an equal-opportunity employment system for urban and rural workers. In 2004, the CPC Central Committee held that migrant workers have currently become an important constituent of the industrial workforce, and that their legitimate rights should be protected. In planning for their regular fiscal budgets, city governments were also urged to consider including expenditures for vocational training for migrant workers, their children’s education, labour protection and other administration and services. In 2005, the CPC Central Committee and the State Council proposed that public employment service agencies should provide free employment services and one-off vocational training subsidies for migrant workers. In 2006, the State Council’s Advice on Resolving the Problems of Migrant Workers stated that migrant workers interest-related issues should be addressed to embrace Chinese specificities and the principles of people-centredness and balanced urban-rural development. The Advice also provided that the administration of labour and employment shall be regulated according to law, to address the problems of low wages, and delayed or defaulted wage payments, provision of employment service and training, social security and public services, and to strengthen the protection of migrant worker rights. A series of policies were proposed to provide a foundation for the comprehensive resolution of migrant worker issues.

Table 2: Policies in the New Century

Time of Issuance


Policy Highlights

March 2001

The Tenth Five-Year Plan for National and Social Development PRC

Increase the degree of urbanization; transfer the rural population; eradicate the urban-rural relationship through the market economy; reform the household registration system to establish a mechanism for the orderly flow of urban and rural population; remove unreasonable restrictions over the migration of rural labour to towns for employment and guide the inter-regional flow of surplus rural labour.

November 2001

Circular of the Advices on Reforming the Household Registration Administration System in Small Towns by the Ministry of Public Security, Approved by the State Council

Anyone who has permanent lawful residence, permanent employment or steady source of income in small towns and all immediate relatives living with such person may be granted urban permanent household registration.

November 2001

Circular on Reviewing and Removing Charges for Migrant Workers, jointly issued by the State Planning Commission, the Ministry of Finance,

Except for the permit processing fee, all administrative charges, including charges for temporary residence, temporary (migration) population administration, family planning administration, urban capacity enhancement, labour regulation, emigrating business operators and workers administration, and foreign building (construction) enterprises administration.

January 2002

Advice on Affairs Related to Agricultural and Rural Community in 2002 by the CPC Central Committee and the State Council

The principle for the rule of migrant workers is “fair treatment, reasonable guidance, sound rule and good service.”

January 2003

Notice Concerning Providing Administrative Services to Migrant Workers by the General Office of the State Council

Local governments are urged to free themselves from outdated mindsets, remove unreasonable restrictions on migrant workers, address the problem of delayed and defaulted salary payment to migrant workers, improve their living and work conditions, provide training and expand channels to arrange for migrant workers’ children to go to school.


(1) Key Aspects of the New Policies

  1. Support migration of the rural population for employment, and aim to establish an equitable employment system and uniform labour market for the urban and rural areas. Discriminatory regulations and unreasonable restrictions against migrant workers are reviewed and removed; administrative approval and charges are simplified; it is now forbidden to dismiss or ostracize migrant workers under the pretext of facilitating employment of urban workers. Urban and rural employment systems are to be integrated and the divisive employment administration system reformed to establish a uniform labour market countrywide in order to encourage fair competition. Employment mechanisms for the transfer of surplus rural labour under the market economy are to be progressively formed in steps to provide equal employment opportunities and services for urban and rural workers.
  2. Address remuneration and labour rights issues, establish migrant workers wage payment guarantee system and standards for payment by employers in order to ensure that salaries are paid promptly and fully to the recipient every month, or as provided in the labour contract. Monitor the wage deposit systems established in order to eradicate payment delays and defaults. The labour protection departments are to pay special attention to the salary payment situation of companies that hire a large number of migrant workers. Severe penalties are to be imposed on companies that default on salaries. Other measures include upward adjustment of the exceptionally low salaries of migrant workers, and ensuring equal pay for equal positions. The new policies also provide for strict enforcement of minimum wages, establishment and modification of minimum wages, and formulation and implementation of hourly minimum wage rates. Enterprises are to strictly observe all State regulations on rest days and leave for employees; compensation is to be paid as provided by law where overtime work, work on off-days or on official holidays is required. A standard collective consultation system is to be established in order to facilitate due salary increases for migrant workers. Also, migrant workers’ rights to a safe and healthy workplace are to be protected according to law. National procedures and standards on professional safety and labour protection are enforced. The enterprises must be equipped with facilities for safe production and the prevention of occupational diseases, and regular health checks must be conducted for workers who may be exposed to occupational hazards. Migrant workers working in high risk industries or special operations are to be specially trained and certified. The policies forbid the employment of child labour, and require the special interests of female workers to be protected.
  3. Public services are to be applied equally to urban and rural residents, including migrant workers. Being a party to national development, migrant workers are to be included in the urban public service system to ensure that they are also entitled to the benefits. Migrant workers are under the jurisdiction of the local governments of the locations of their work, and are given rights to enjoy public services such as employment service, training, children’s education, housing and the prevention and treatment of epidemic diseases. The needs of migrant workers residing and working in the urban areas are to be taken into account during the formulation of urban development plans and public policies and the construction of public facilities. Public fiscal expenditures will be increased to gradually improve the public service system, which includes migrant workers. Public employment service agencies will be opened to migrant workers, providing policy consultation, employment information, guidance and employment agency services. Migrant workers’ children who reside with them will receive compulsory education, mainly for public primary and middle schools, for which local governments of the emigration destination are responsible. Other responsibilities of the local governments include preparing educational development plans, budgets and allocating public funds to schools based on the student population. Public schools providing compulsory education shall accord equal treatment to migrant workers’ children and local students in terms of charges and management. No “temporary-schooling fee” (jiedu fei) or any other fee against the state regulation shall be imposed on foreign students. Governments will provide support and guidance to private schools designated to provide compulsory education for migrant workers’ children in the form of education funds and faculty training. Also, health education is to be conducted for migrant workers and disease monitoring for their residence. Other policies include free treatment of selected infectious diseases and inclusion of migrant workers’ children in local vaccination plans. Local governments of emigration destinations shall include administration and services funds for family planning programs of migrant workers in their fiscal budgets. Migrant workers’ living conditions shall be improved, with more stringent regulatory operations to ensure that their dwellings comply with the basic health and safety requirements. Under the new policies, there shall be improved planning, construction and management of the living communities at the urban-rural fringes, and expanded capacities for public infrastructures.
  4. Accelerate training and professional education to enhance the occupational skills and quality of migrant workers and continue with the Sunshine Project (yangguang gongcheng) of training for the transfer of migrant workers. The new policies also include measures for improving the system for migrant worker training subsidies in order to provide due subsidies for migrant workers undergoing training and to encourage the wider use of direct subsidies such as “training coupons.” Employers will be given support to set up permanent training bases and develop customized training programs. Local governments of the emigration destinations shall include migrant workers’ skills enhancement programs in their vocational training plans. Since the duty of training migrant workers lies with the relevant governmental departments and employers, employers who fail to fulfil their obligations will be required to contribute employee training funds under State regulations, and such funds will be used for government-organized training. Education and training institutions, as well as women, youth and workers’ organizations, are encouraged to play a role in the training of migrant workers. There will also be major focus on the development of vocational education for rural communities, and various vocational and technical colleges are encouraged to expand their recruitment in the rural areas. Rural middle school graduates will be given incentives to undergo formal vocational and technical education.
  5. Social security for migrant workers shall be progressively established. The priority is on medical insurance for employment-related injuries and serious illnesses, and on the introduction of support for seniors in phases. All employers must ensure that migrant workers are promptly given insurance coverage for employment-related injuries. In the event that migrant workers who are not covered suffer an injury at work, the employer will be responsible for the workers medical expenses based on the benefits covered under insurance policies. The first priority is in-patient medical care during the period of stay in the cities, which shall be borne mainly by employers. Since migrant workers are highly mobile and their salaries comparatively low, their eligibility standards for pension should be transferable and renewable. This will protect migrant workers’ rights to social security during floating employment. Where possible, migrant workers with long-term employment may be included directly in the urban workers’ basic pension scheme.
  6. The household registration system shall be further reformed to gradually accommodate migrant workers with long-term employment and residency in cities in order to enable them to become urban residents. Resolution of migrant workers’ household registration problem will be carried out conditionally and in phases. Restrictions on household registration of migrant workers in small-and medium-sized cities or towns shall be relaxed; in large cities, migrant workers who meet the prescribed criteria shall be addressed positively and prudently; model workers, senior mechanics, technicians and outstanding performers shall be given priority in acceding to urban residency.
  7. Protection mechanisms for migrant workers’ rights and interests shall be reinforced. Migrant workers’ democratic political rights, personal freedom, dignity and land rights shall be protected. There will also be greater law enforcement to defend their rights and interests, employers who infringe on migrant workers’ rights shall be subject to severe punishment, and the institutions for receiving complaints shall be improved in order to enable migrant workers to better defend their rights. Labour dispute arbitration and mediation systems shall be improved with simplified procedures and shorter lead time to a hearing, and priority shall be given to cases involving labour remuneration and work-related injuries. As well, migrant workers will be entitled to legal aid. Trade unions shall focus on labour contracts, salaries, work conditions, occupational safety and health. Employers are urged to honour their obligations under laws and regulations and to protect the legitimate rights of migrant workers.

(2) Characteristics of the New Policies

23The new policies stress the protection of rights and interests and the creation of favourable employment conditions for migrant workers. Policies and rules have been improved to establish an integrated labour market across urban and rural areas; to develop an employment system that encourages fair competition; to enact a policy regime and law enforcement surveillance mechanisms that protect migrant workers’ rights; to promote public service institutions and systems that benefit migrant workers; to expand employment channels for the transfer of rural labour; and to promote urban and rural economic prosperity, social progress and the healthy development of industrialization, urbanization and modernization with Chinese characteristics. The main characteristics of the new policies are the following:

  1. Reflecting the current call for synergy between market-determined employment, people-orientation and balanced urban-rural development. Policies are synchronized with the development of a market economy and urbanization, and aim to remove the last clutches of administrative planning and control of the flow of farmers and employment while moving towards market-regulated, government-facilitated and self-determined employment. They also liberate farmers from their confines of countryside-only employment and address sannong issues on the pace of the rural labour force transfer and urbanization; they thus reengineer the dual structure and affirm the nature, status and significance of migrant workers as a part of a new industrial labour force. This is a natural process for market-regulated employment, as well as for the industrialization and urbanization of this agricultural country to take place. Migrant workers are the subjects of social transformation and should not be treated as cheap labour, whose rights are subject to wilful infringements. Public interest is the core of these policies, for such policies integrate market-regulated employment, urbanization and people-orientation. They also seek to address issues related to the interests of migrant workers, to improve their livelihoods and to give equal rights to migrant workers who work and live in urban areas.
  2. Breaking the dual hukou-based divisive structure and providing fair treatment for all. The policies are undertaken by municipal governments and are centred on the interests of all residents, including migrant workers. Hence, they accord equal treatment to migrant workers, who are an integral part of economic development and urban construction. The policies also respect and safeguard the legitimate rights of migrant workers, eliminate discriminatory regulations and institutional barriers, and grant equal rights and duties to migrant workers. The various policy dimensions, such as employment, government services and participation in enterprises and social administration all attest to the focus on equity.
  3. Embodying the public service spirit through improvements in government sevices and administration and the incorporation of government administration into services. The policies transform government functions, shifting them from restriction and control of migrant workers to the provision of services to them and protection of their rights. For example, the construction of public facilities will incorporate the migrant workers’ needs, education budgets will include the education funds for migrant workers’ children, and other services such as disease prevention and treatment and vaccination of children will be provided. The policies also bolster public services and social administration for migrant workers from many aspects and provide directions for enterprises, social communities and intermediary organizations to play their part in creating favourable working environments and living conditions for migrant workers.
  4. Providing flexibility in the multiple channels for labour transfer and drive for location-specific institutional innovation. The policies support the transfer of the rural labour force to the cities, as well as the local absorption of surplus labour by developing township enterprises and county economies. The policies also support both the temporary floating employment in the cities and towns, as well as enable migrant workers with long term employment to assume local citizenship. Migrant workers are also encouraged to return home to start their own businesses. Thus the number of channels for the transfer of surplus labour is increased. The policies address problems through considering local conditions and exploring effective methods to protect migrant workers’ interests and facilitate the systematic transfer of surplus rural labour, instead of adopting a one-size-fits-all model.
  5. Reflecting the operability of solutions and promoting goal-based institutional development. The policies emphasize addressing the prevailing situations, promptly resolving major migrant worker issues, and strengthening the operability of policies and measures. Some universal problems are institutional and system-related. In addressing more deeply-rooted problems, fundamental systems and institutions to protect migrant workers are formed. For problems that cannot be resolved immediately, it proposes policy opinions which include the principles for resolution, directions and perspectives to provide room for further exploration and improvement.


24In recent years, China has made extensive policy adjustments for migrant workers, and social administration is moving towards the protection of their rights and the provision of services to them. However, all of this is still undergoing changes. Although the policy proposals have identified the problems, they have not solved them. Despite huge progress by different locations in the implementation of State policies, many fail to effectively implement them, which proves that many problems cannot be immediately resolved in the short term. In implementing these policies, infringement of migrant workers’ rights remains the most pronounced problem. Migrant workers who have long-term employment in the cities are still denied the rights enjoyed by permanent urban residents. The administration system has not been improved, and the interests and requirements of migrant workers are not included during the formulation of urban public policy. Some cities continue to employ restrictive rules.

(1) Existing problems during execution of new policies: Continued serious infringements of the socio-economic rights of migrant workers

  1. Migrant labour rights continue to be seriously infringed. According to research5 conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics in August 2006, more than half of the migrant employees had not been given labour contracts, and 20 percent of those who had were not aware of their contract provisions. The infringement of their rights to rest days and holidays was severe: 47 percent had no rest days on Sundays; for those who work overtime, 53 percent had monthly salaries under RMB 800, 20 percent did not receive timely payment of salaries, 20 percent were without full salaries, and 50 percent were denied overtime pay. Some enterprises reduced the wage rate to the minimum to force workers to work overtime for extra income. Migrant workers are also the main victims in the frequent occurrences of job-related injuries, mining disasters and occupational diseases.
  2. Approximately 70 to 80 percent of migrant workers have no social security insurance, and those who are given social security have difficulty enjoying their rightful benefits. According to the 2006 investigation, the percentage of migrant workers not covered by pension, medical, employment-related injury benefits or unemployment insurance account for 73.8 percent, 73.8 percent, 67.5 percent and 84.7 percent respectively. Of those investigated, 6.6 percent, 7.2 percent, 4.6 percent and 2.6 percent paid for their own insurance. Excluding those who paid for their own insurance coverage, the number of workers not covered by insurance totals 80 percent. 57 percent of those who suffered job-related injuries did not benefit from insurance, nearly 80 percent of the female workers did not have paid maternity leave, and over 90 percent of migrant workers received no housing subsidies. Even those with insurance coverage have difficulty obtaining insurance claims. In the case of work-related injuries, professional knowledge is required to produce proof for obtaining certification by medical institutions and the labour departments. Even at dispute arbitration, migrant workers are disadvantaged because of their lack of the necessary knowledge, and it usually costs them several years and substantial amounts of money to submit complaints and claims. Even with the money and time spent, many still found it difficult to obtain reasonable reimbursements. Many injured or disabled migrant workers return home and become part of the poor rural population. Those who have been covered by pension insurance cannot renew their policies when they switch jobs. Also, only the portion contributed by the migrant workers is refundable when they surrender their policies; the portion relating to the employer’s contribution is not. This is a prejudice to their rights. In many developed regions and cities, urban residents are covered by “urban insurance.” Farmers who have entered non-agricultural sectors are covered by “urban insurance” or “township insurance” (housing subsidies included); those who remain in agriculture are covered by “rural insurance”; however, most migrant workers have no social insurance coverage at all. The dual-structured society is therefore reinforced by the urban-rural and inter-regional gaps.
  3. There is unfair provisioning or lack of public services in housing, medical care and children’s education for migrant workers. In 2006, more than half of migrant workers’ children entering the age of compulsory education were required to pay a “temporary schooling fee” (jiedu fei) and sponsorship fee. The average amount payable was RMB 1,226 per entrant. Nearly 50 percent of migrant workers’ children received education at private schools with poor study environments. Because such private schools did not receive public funding, migrant workers have to pay tuition and other miscellaneous fees, as well as rental fees, teachers’ salaries and administrative expenses. Due to their low income, few locations could accommodate their housing, medical and maternity care needs. When sick, migrant workers avoid medical care as much as possible. Most would visit cheap private clinics or self-administer medicine. Most babies are delivered privately, and few receive vaccination. Migrant workers live in poor housing. In many cities, the reconstruction of urban-rural fringes and “villages within cities” where most migrant workers live has improved the appearance of the cities. But for migrant workers, finding a place to stay has become a concern.
  4. Migrant workers with long term employment in the cities are still not allowed to migrate permanently. About 40 percent of migrant workers have long term employment; more than 20 percent are living with their families in their location of employment; 55 percent wish to settle down for good; and some employers have also indicated their need for the steady supply of skilled workers. However, the reform of the household registration system has stagnated at the phase where migrants are required to meet a certain criteria for investment and technology. Even when some migrant workers have skills that are needed by employers, they are still not allowed urban household registration. For most small townships in the developed regions, household registration is available only to local rural residents. Even those migrant workers who meet the prerequisites are denied. One of the conditions for migrant workers to be eligible for urban household registration is “lawful residence,” which provides that only people who own their residences can register. Those who live in legally leased residences are denied registration. This makes the criterion impossible for migrant workers. For example, household registration in small towns in southern Jiangsu Province is managed by the central cities. Migrant workers who apply for household registration in the central cities or small towns have to own local residences that measure between 70 and 100 square metres. Even civil servants can hardly own houses of that size without loans. The small towns in the Pearl Delta Region require migrant workers to not only own residences, but to pay RMB 12,000 as capacity expansion fees. In some cities, migrant workers are treated as low-class citizens of poor quality and are ostracized.

(2) Migrant workers have no right to participate in rural social administration; they have no channel to express their desire to promote their own welfare; and the balance between urban policy-making and other interwoven interests is disturbed

25In most developed regions and cities, voting rights hinge on the citizens’ household registration status. Migrant workers have no right to vote or to stand for election in the cities where they live and work, and cannot participate in democratic elections, management and supervision. This leads to neglect of their needs or infringement of their interests when balancing policy-making and their interests. Recent regulations provide that migrant workers can vote if they register at their emigration destination, and if they possess a formal statement issued by the government of their hometown proving that they do not vote there. However, owing to hefty travel expenses and complex procedures, most migrant workers choose not to vote. In regions and cities with large numbers of migrant workers, mayors and other heads of local governments are only accountable to the electorate, which only includes residents with local household registration. Migrant workers do not have the same rights. It is therefore easy to explain why certain policies and regulations prejudice their interests, and why some administrative departments simply ignore their complaints about infringement of their rights.

26Social organizations are immature, and urban grassroots communities are not open to diversification. Under the negative influence of household registration system, social organizations, activities and services of grassroots communities remain closed to migrant workers. At present, few migrant workers are members of trade unions, and no such organizations fulfil the role of protecting the legitimate rights of workers. For some private firms, the employers easily control the trade unions, and trade unions do not represent employee interests. The mechanism of inserting the government as a participant in negotitions in the interest of the workers, and between trade unions and employers, is still being tested. It is impossible to protect employees’ legitimate rights in the absence of some such mechanism.

27In some places, state policies with regard to prohibitive measures are not implemented. These include regulations by the State Council prohibiting the imposition of charges on migrant workers for urban employment or charges by employers for hiring migrant workers, and the imposition of a “temporary-schooling fee” (jiedu fei) for the education of migrant workers’ children. Also, the regulations provide that public security expenses shall be covered by fiscal funds, and that migrant workers shall not be charged public security maintenance fees. However, some provincial and municipal government departments continue to prejudice the interest of migrant workers by imposing such fees.

(3) Some local governments continue to impose restrictions

28As important components of the urban industrial workforce and as permanent residents of the cities, migrant workers should be provided the same degree of security and protection as registered urban citizens. However, in some places, despite the policy regulations, public security is given higher priority than the protection of migrant workers’ rights, and migrant workers are regarded as destabilizing factors and targets for social restriction. Although they should in fact be considered a key group eligible for protection and a force that contributes to public security, the existing system indiscriminately excludes them from social administration, including public security. Because there is little effort spent to explore the administrative methods that would incorporate services and protection to ensure migrant workers’ civil rights are respected, there is no fundamental improvement in the security environment. Some local governments continue to exercise restrictive measures and even impose fees on migrant workers to cover their administrative costs. Yet, these are exactly the places where the security conditions are amongst the worst in China.


29The present conditions show that enforceability of the new policies is a challenge as the socio-economic rights of migrant workers are still severely infringed. In some places, the system of administration and methodology has not been fundamentally transformed. The main reason is that there is a lack of awareness of the harm inflicted by the unfair treatment of migrant workers, and a lack of complete understanding of how the interests of the migrant workers are interwoven with those of the urban society. We have to look at the reality and renew our perspectives before we can implement new policy initiatives and progressively create a regulatory environment that protects migrant workers’ rights and provides them urban citizenship and stable, safe employment.

(1) Raise awareness on the serious consequences that result from unfair treatment of migrant workers

30Unfair treatment of migrant workers and their poof living conditions demonstrate the institutional-driven depreciation of their labour, the deficiency of their rights, and the sacrifice migrant workers and rural interests have made to the industrialization and urban development of China. This hinders not only the resolution of sannong issues, but also socio-economic development and modernization. It curtails the farmer and migrant worker income and thereby growth in domestic consumption. This is a major cause for the mismatch between investment and consumption, and increases the risk of excess production capacity in industries, and deflation.

31Discrimination against migrant workers also results in growth in the urban-rural gap, regional gap and wealth gap, and the large exodus of migrant workers has disadvantaged the central and western regions. It results in many enterprises relying solely on cheap labour to compete with low prices; thus, unfair treatment also obstructs technological progress and transformation of the mode of growth. The depreciation of the value of labour due to the low cost of the migrant workers results in export price wars, resulting in sanctions, anti-dumping and special safeguards against Chinese products. It also widens international trade imbalances and increases the pressure for appreciation of the renminbi. This also creates a negative profile of China in the international community, as some international media classify Chinese enterprises that accord differentiated treatment to migrant workers “sweat shops” and raise this as a human right issue.

  • 6 Gu Yikang, Thoughts on Issues Related to Migrant Workers: A Research Report on Chinese Migrant Wor (...)

32People must be made aware of other negative results of discrimination against migrant workers. These include: a heavy burden on society with future social security responsibilities; it seriously obstructs the progress of industrialization, urbanization and transformation of China from an agricultural power to an industrialized, urbanized modern society; it damages equality, justice and the spirit of equal efforts and equal benefits, and exerts a negative impact on the building of a harmonious society; and it reduces the economic, political and social status of the Chinese working class. Low salaries of numerous migrant workers stifle the income of urban industrial workers; this in turn affects the relationship between the CPC and the government with farmers and workers, and may even discourage the next generation from taking up jobs as workers or farmers.6

(2) Understand the status of migrant workers in urban socio-economic development and the necessity of fair-treatment policies and consultative rule

33In line with industrialization and urbanization, it is natural that the dual social structure be ended and the status of migrant workers transformed, from being marginalized to being given ownership of the urban society. Millions of migrant workers joining the non-agricultural sector and city workforce are driving industrialization. This is a historic process, during which surplus rural labour is transferred to other sectors and the underdeveloped dual economy – the majority farming population – is transformed into a single, modern society. From an economic perspective, migrant workers are integral to the industrial, commercial and service sectors. Nonetheless, the policies and regulations did not recognize them as such. Instead, they could only live as labour service-providers, and not in a family unit. This contradicts reality and the rules of development. The fact that only elites are recognized and accepted while migrant workers are marginalized depreciates the value of migrant workers, and takes away the responsibilities of cities in driving rural development for this era. Urban enterprises require not only investors, managers and technical staff, but also a large number of workers. Industrialization and the market economy require that the free flow of migrant workers be tied to independent hiring by employers; that investors, technical talents, as well as migrant workers be welcomed to play their part; that the isolation and feudalism caused by self-sufficient small-time farming be substituted for the openness and tolerance of modern cities; that migrant workers be integrated into the urban society and be given the choice to become urban residents; and that a platform be provided for enterprises to have a stable workforce and improved corporate qualities.

34Because migrant workers and the original urban residents are both owners and taxpayers of the economic society, it is necessary to correctly establish the relationship between urban governments and all residents, including migrant workers. Some migrant workers work in the cities most of the time, returning home only during busy farming seasons; the majority of them work in the cities year round. Some have even started businesses of their own. Just like the original urban residents, migrant workers are actors and labour providers in the market economy that drive urban economic development. They are also urban residents and social citizens. As taxpayers, they contribute directly or indirectly to urban tax income and public fiscal funds by participating in economic development, the creation of public wealth and daily consumption. The relationship between government public policies and urban residents, including migrant workers, should be approached from three aspects:

35First, the relationship between the government and the public. The urban government s mandate is determined by the public needs of the citizens in the society. The right to rule is given by the public and the administration costs, including the salaries of administrative staff, are derived from taxpayers, of which migrant workers represent a substantial part. Therefore, the relationship between the government and the urban residents, including migrant workers, is one between public servants and owners.

36Second, government policies should represent the interests of all urban residents, including migrant workers, and should ensure that the legitimate rights of all citizens are protected. Two types of relationships should be prudently handled. One is the employment relationship between investors and workers, including migrant workers. Corrective action should be carried out in order to reverse the overemphasis on the role and interests of investors, and the corresponding neglect of those of migrant workers. The government should regulate according to law, participate in a coordinated effort to address the infringements of migrant worker rights, and provide guidance to establish a legally equal and mutually beneficial relationship between employees and employers. The other relationship is that between migrant workers and native urban residents. The government should address the neglect of migrant worker needs and interests and provide them with equal public and administration services, create channels and platforms for two-way communication, help migrant workers adapt to the cities and to re-socialize, and facilitate cultural integration. The government should provide the regulatory framework to guarantee the basic rights of migrant workers in employment, economic benefits, housing, education, social insurance and participation in social administration.

37Third, the relationship between government decisions, rule and the enforcement of policy, and public participation. We should dispel the old notion that government rules over the public. Government rule is not about forcing public compliance. It is a process of reflecting the interests and needs of the public, and providing public services. We should also correct the old notion that government is the natural representative of the general public and operates independent of public participation. Where migrant workers are denied necessary rights and are therefore unable to participate in social administration, government policies, unintentionally or intentionally, exclude or even prejudice migrant workers’ interests and needs. In certain places, state policies favourable to migrant workers are not implemented. Migrant worker interests should be represented by the migrant workers, and expressed and protected through regular public administration channels. With social stratification, development of social organizations and diversification of interest relationships, it is necessary for governments, experts and the general public to participate together, to guarantee reasonable and democratic decisions and to ensure that the decisions are realistic and in the interest of the public. Meanwhile, governments should foster the capability of self-rule among the public, support their self-rule, provide support for the self-discipline of individuals and enterprises, the automatic adjustments of relationships, and the autonomous rule of communities. Governments should also encourage participation of the social forces and non-governmental organizations, to combine government rule with public participation, self-rule and social supervision. It is natural that consultative and collaborative rule will prevail.

(3) Adopt People-Oriented, Fair Treatment and Consultative Rule-Driven Measures and Policies

  1. Policies should be enforced, regulations improved and effective supervision by government agencies exercised to reverse the trend of rampant infringements of migrant workers’ labour rights. The Several Opinions on Addressing Issues Related to Migrant Workers by the State Council proposes to “enable migrant workers to enjoy equal rights and duties as urban workers in the principle of people-orientation and fair treatment” and to “create favourable environment and conditions for them to integrate into the cities and live in harmony with urban citizens.” A series of policies were formulated. Policies must be specified in practice to improve legislation. At present, the priority is to enforce policies governing employment services and training, labour rights and basic public services. At a time when the market is still underdeveloped and when the rules of the game for the various interest groups within the market economy have not been formed, government should provide guidance, help coordinate and regulate according to law. In fact, the government should promote a mutually beneficial relationship between the employees and employers and improve labour standards to ensure that migrant worker salaries are paid fully and promptly. Minimum hourly wages should be established to eliminate uncompensated overtime, and to ensure the observance of production safety requirements. Trade union membership should be expanded to include migrant workers, grassroots trade union leaders should be elected by members, and trade unions should increase their responsibilities and rights to protect workers. The Opinions proposed that the State may designate a specific month within a year for annual negotiations between employees and employers on labour rights and labour interests such as salaries. It should be ensured that the provisions of the governing laws and regulations, such as the Labour Law, concerning workers’ rights and labour standards are reasonable. Specific issues that are disputed should be promptly investigated to establish clear regulations, and enforcement procedures should be simplified.
  2. Public service discrepancies should be addressed to establish a public service system that includes migrant workers’ interests and meets the basic social needs of migrant workers. For example, housing, medical and health care, maternity care and children’s compulsory education for low-income migrant workers should be incorporated into the urban social development plan for pragmatic regulatory arrangements. As it is not feasible to allow them to enjoy equal treatment as urban citizens in all aspects of social welfare, priority should be given to addressing their urgent needs so that they can be progressively covered by basic public services. Governments should make comprehensive plans and provide incentives for housing for industries serving middle-and low-income families. Preferential policies should be formulated for rural communities to build low-rent housing, apartments for migrant workers and residential areas at urban-rural fringes, and to provide support to maintain and develop the supply of water, electricity and gas facilities and schools, hospitals and communication facilities.
  3. As the social security and household registration systems are intertwined with the long term development of migrant workers, substantial reform of these areas is necessary. After nearly two decades, second generation migrant workers have now moved to the cities. However, until now, migrant workers could only drift from job to job, and have been denied the stability of livelihood enjoyed by urban workers and dwellers. The failure to break free of unequal treatment endangers the stability of the urban economy and society. The urban-rural gap will widen if the young and able-bodied rural labour force is absorbed by the cities while the burden of raising the young and supporting the elderly is left to the rural community. Strategies and procedures should be specific, as it is now time to resolve the issue of the right of migrant workers who have worked and operated many years in the city to choose to stay or leave. According to the “strategies for population urbanization by category” as set forth under the eleventh five-year plan, some migrant workers and entrepreneurs with permanent employment should be selected to settle in the cities as urban residents. Migrant workers should be covered by employment injury insurance. As for medical insurance, coverage for major illnesses may be contributed by employers (or cooperative medical insurance currently under pilot study in Shenzhen, the premium of which is mainly contributed by employers), while supplementary contributions can be provided by migrant workers. Personal pension accounts should be established at a lower rate, with contributions mainly from employers, and supplementary contributions from individuals. All contributions should be paid into personal accounts and accepted – but not transferred – anywhere in the country. Settlement upon retirement will be standardized and carried out at a national level. As an alternative, an account may be transferred to another location when jobs are switched, and converted at the prevailing local insurance rate. The urban social insurance system should cover migrant workers with stable employment in the city for more than five years.
  4. Integrate migrant workers into the urban community and encourage their participation in social administration at different levels. An open urban community should be established to facilitate social integration by granting membership to migrant workers, and incorporating migrant workers’ rights in its development. By providing social services for migrant workers, they can be logically organized to participate in public activities related to culture, education, health and security. Migrant workers should also be encouraged to interact with urban citizens as equals to foster a community spirit of fraternity, trust, cooperation and coexistence. Migrant workers’ right to participate in social administration at various levels should be respected. Qualified migrant workers should be entitled to register to vote and run for elections in cities where they live and work (for those who do not want to vote in cities, written proof should be provided to allow them to vote from home). This simple and convenient procedure can ensure their rights to vote and to run in elections their cities of residence so that that their interests and requests may be reflected during policy making and implementation.


1 Labour movement has caused the perpetual oversupply of labour in the coastal areas under rapid growth. According to an investigation in the Pearl Delta Region (PDR) in 1992 by Hong Kong scholars, in the first year, the labour efficiency of migrant workers was 60 percent that of Hong Kong workers; in the second year, the labour efficiency in both places were at par (Nanyang Commercial Bank, China’s Reform and Opening Up and the Economic Development in Pearl River Delta, 1992, p. 75); however, labour costs in the PDR were lower. According to our statistics, in 1997 the average monthly salary in Shenzhen in the manufacturing and construction sectors was RNB 1120 (the monthly salary for migrant workers was even lower, generally at RMB 500-650). The figures provided by Handelsblatt on 6 January 1994 showed that if other factors are not considered and only the salary levels are compared, in 1997 in Shenzhen the average salary in the manufacturing and construction sectors was only 15.8 percent of that in Hong Kong (where monthly salary in 1995 was HK$ 7,087), 12 percent of that in Taiwan (1992), 24 percent of that in Mexico, 52 percent of that in Poland and 2.5 percent of that in West Germany (1992). In addition, Gong Sen, a researcher with the Development Research Centre of the State Council did an analysis based on studies by the International Labour Organization and Chinese statistics. He calculated that in 1999, the overall labour costs (including salary costs and non-salary costs) rose to US$ 0.756 per hour in China; Germany rose to US$ 26; approximately US$ 20 in the US and Japan; between US$ 7 and 9.5 in the Four Tigers, and US$ 2.12 in Mexico. Chinas relative labour cost is 3 percent to 4 percent that of Germany, Japan and the United States, 10 percent to 14 percent that of the Four Tigers and about one third that of Mexico. This is of special advantage to the coastal areas in attracting foreign investments and expanding exports.

2 In June 1997, a pilot program proposal by the State Council on the administration of household registration in small towns advocated that the administration of household registration should be reformed as appropriate, to permit rural labour with permanent employment, who are residing in small towns and meet certain criteria to apply for permanent household registration in such towns, in order to facilitate orderly migration of surplus rural labour to the nearest small towns. Migrant workers who have been granted household registration in small towns enjoy the same treatment as local residents. Local governments, relevant departments and entities should treat migrant workers as local residents in education, employment, food and oil supply and social security. Local governments and the various departments should not charge extra fees or to the equivalent of capacity-enhancement fee.

3 In November 1993, Decisions on Several Issues regarding the Establishment of the System of the Socialist Market Economy by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) proposed the grooming of the labour market, and encouraged and guided surplus rural labour to move in an orderly fashion into non-agricultural industries and across regions. And the Labour Law promulgated in 1994 is also crucial on this issue. However, policies that could bring real benefit to migrant workers were absent. Rather, policies that were put in place did not encourage "orderly movement" and the Labour Law was not applicable to migrant workers.

4 See Jiang Wensheng, "Protection of Migrant Workers’ Rights and Interests: Policy Shifts and Prospects," in The Establishment of an Equal Employment System for Rural Labour, compiled by Chen Xiaohua and Zhang Hongyu, China Financial and Economic Publishing House, September 2005, p. 161.

5 Research Centre on the Service Sector, Research Report on Migrant Workers’ Quality of Life, National Bureau of Statistics,

6 Gu Yikang, Thoughts on Issues Related to Migrant Workers: A Research Report on Chinese Migrant Workers, China Yanshi Publishing House, April 2006, p. 497-498.


Received his Bachelor’s in International Politics from Fudan University, Shanghai. Cui worked for eleven years in Chu County, Anhui Province, participating in agricultural reforms, after which he worked in the General Office of Anhui Province and at the Country Policy Research Centre of the Chinese Communist Party. Presently, he is a researcher in the Country Economy Department of the Development Research Centre of the State Council and an Associate Secretary-General at the Institute for Country Labour Force Development. His research focuses on the areas of agricultural management systems, wholesale markets, agricultural protectionism and revolutions in agricultural technology. Since 1993, he has devoted himself to researching the movement of the rural labour force. Cui has published dozens of papers and a book, The Migration of Chinese Peasants : Institutional Innovation for Farmer’s Employment and Citizenry. He is also the co-author of Reforms of Chinese Counties and Cities, Employment of Peasants and China’s Modernization, Out of Duality : Research on Peasants’ Employment and Business Starting, as well as numerous other chapters and articles. Cui has been awarded the National Award for Development Research as well as the National Award for Technology Advancement in recognition of his outstanding research

Received his undergraduate education at the Beijing Foreign Language Institute in English. Following graduation, he worked at the Beijing Capital Airport until 1980, following which he studied at the Beijing Agriculture University (now the China Agriculture University) for three years and obtained a Master’s. He then worked as an editor at the Agricultural Public House for six months, after which he was appointed Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture of the Peoples Republic of China, a position he held for more than a year and a half. From 1985-1990, he worked in the Rural Development Research Centre of the State Council as a research member ; he then went to the Development Research Centre of the State Council to be a Division Director until 1998. In 1997, Cui became a Senior Researcher. The main focus of his research is the relationship between rural and urban development. Over the last fifteen years he has published no fewer than 50 reports and essays

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