BEIJING, China – Ten suicides this year at Foxconn’s electronics factory in southern China have cast a renewed spotlight on China’s migrant workers, who staff the production lines that make iPads, mobile phones and just about everything else for the world’s electronics consumers.
In an open letter this month, prominent Chinese sociologists called on the government to reform the country’s production model, which depends on churning through low-paid quasi-legal migrants. China has an estimated 150 million to 200 million domestic migrant workers.
“We have made them live a migrant life that is rootless and helpless, where families are separated, parents have no one to support them, and children are not taken care of,” the scholars wrote. “In short, this is a life without dignity.”
Meanwhile, Apple CEO Steve Jobs wandered into the suicide fray Tuesday, telling a customer by email that Apple is "all over this."
To help make sense of the controversy, here are five things you need to know about China's wandering masses of migrants, living in the shadows of the country's economic boom:
1. What’s so unique about migrant workers in China?
Moving around in China is not simple. Because of a decades-old household registration system that ties a people to their place of birth, Chinese citizens are limited in moving around the country. A person’s hukou, or residence permit, determines nearly every facet of life. Human-rights groups have decried the plight of China’s internal migrants and their place as second-class citizens in their own country.
Workers who move from farms to factory towns do so at great personal sacrifice, often leaving their own children behind. Though some rules have changed in recent years, most migrant workers are ineligible for benefits like health care and schooling for their kids in the cities where they work. Urban, educated migrants typically have access to better social welfare benefits than rural residents who make up the bulk of factory lines.
2. What are the consequences of China’s domestic migration policies?
The dilemmas and negative consequences of migrant workers are well-documented and include:
Broken families, when parents move for work but must leave their kids behind so they can stay in school. At least 25 million children have been left in rural areas by migrant parents.
Low wages with little recourse to complain.
Health catastrophes, when workers are injured or fall ill away from home and can’t get medical treatment.
Subpar living conditions like overcrowded factory dorms.
3. If the risks and sacrifices are so great, why do so many Chinese migrate?
Simply put, the opportunities and rewards are far greater. Factory work, though low-paid compared with salaries earned elsewhere, is more lucrative than farming. A young factory worker can save enough money to build a new family home. For younger migrants, factory jobs offer enticing social opportunities as well. The workshops of the Pearl River Delta are populated with young workers and Foxconn’s massive plant feels like an entire city of people mostly under 30.
4. Why doesn’t the government end the household registration system?
In a word, chaos. Experts say if the government abolished the hukou system tomorrow, cities would flood with tens of millions more people than infrastructures could handle. Since hubs like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have better standards of living and the best health care and other services, those cities in particular would be overwhelmed. Critics say migration law also keeps a portion of the population beholden to low-wage manual labor like factory work, an important pillar of China’s economy.
5. What is the government doing to address the issue?
Gradual hukou reform, along with economic development in rural areas. Much reform has come at local levels, especially in places like Shenzhen where migrants account for roughly 80 percent of the population. Some cities have begun offering health care benefits to migrants and schooling for their children. In addition, the central government is investing heavily in infrastructure and other measures to boost the economies of places like Sichuan province, China’s top exporter of migrant labor. As a result, migration has slowed. But for most migrants, change has come too slowly.