How Hukou Reform is Changing the Makeup of Chinese Factory Towns

Ines Kaempfer, executive director of the Center for Child Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility, describes how policy changes have made it easier for Chinese migrant workers to bring their children with them when they migrate to work in factories. (2 min., 14 sec.)

Hundreds of millions of rural Chinese have migrated to cities in recent decades to find new economic opportunities. But this trend has come with a major side-effect: Due to residency restrictions and factory towns inhospitable to family life, these workers usually must leave their families behind.

This has resulted in tens of millions of so-called “left-behind children” to be raised by grandparents or other relatives in the countryside. Studies have suggested these children tend to be at psychological, physical, and cognitive disadvantages compared to those not separated from their parents.

But thanks to policy changes and greater public awareness of the problem, things may be starting to change.

“We see more and more migrant parents that find it important to be with their children,” said Ines Kaempfer, executive director of the Center for Child Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility (CCR CSR) — a consulting firm that researches issues related to children’s rights and migrant workers in China. “Whereas maybe a couple years ago they just accepted [the situation] … many parents are looking for a way to change it.”

For six decades, China has maintained a household registration system (hukou) that restricts internal migration. While the system has liberalized in many ways since its establishment, it still largely ties social benefits to one’s place of birth, which makes it difficult and often prohibitively expensive for rural migrants in cities to attain healthcare, education, and other services for their children.

But in 2016, a new policy aiming to give 100 million migrant workers residence permits by 2020 that increase access to these public services came into effect. Also in 2016, as the plight of “left-behind children” had already begun to gain widespread media coverage and public attention, the government signaled the importance of the issue by publishing a set of nonbinding guidelines calling for their support and care.

Guangdong province — China’s largest manufacturing hub — has been quick to implement hukou reforms, which Kaempfer says has already prompted more migrant factory workers there to bring their children. “Before, there were just these single people working there,” she said while speaking at Asia Society in Hong Kong. “Now there are starting to be children and families there, and so that obviously also creates a whole range of new needs, because these places weren't set up as communities and family places with schools, childcare, and playgrounds.”

Kaempfer’s organization, CCR CSR, conducted surveys of Chinese factories and their workers in 2013 and 2017 on the challenges faced by migrant worker parents with left-behind children. Both surveys found that some of the biggest problems for parents who migrate with their children to work in factories are increased financial pressure, lacking the time to spend with their kids, lack of childcare, and difficulty enrolling in school — though the proportion expressing such concerns dropped between the 2013 and 2017 surveys. The factories surveyed reported that 72 percent of their workers still do not live with their children, but 65 percent said more workers are choosing to bring their children than in the past.

Since 2012, the size of China’s labor force has been shrinking by millions of workers per year as the country’s population ages, with many manufacturing regions already experiencing labor shortages. For this reason, worker retention will become more critical for factories in years ahead. Making life easier for migrants with children could be an effective way to keep workers. The CCR CSR study found that 31 percent of the migrant parents surveyed had left a job before to take care of their children, and it was the top reason cited for migrant parents to leave a job. It also found that only 2 percent of the factories surveyed provided daycare for workers — something 30 percent say their workers need.

In the above video, Kaempfer discusses the changes she witnessed sprouting from hukou reforms. Watch the complete program, "Migrant Workers in China: Hukou, Hope and Beyond," in the video below.  

HONG KONG, April 10, 2017 — As part of the Jack Tang Memorial Lecture Series, panelists address various social issues related to China’s ambitious plan to issue 100 million urban hukous (household registration system) to migrant workers by 2020. While this plan favors more educated and skilled workers, panelists explore how efforts between government, the private sector, and NGOs can join forces to support those trapped by the growing poverty and equality gap. (1 hr., 36 min.)

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.