4.12.2012 | Von:
Bettina Gransow

Migrants in China’s Cities: Informalization of Working and Living Conditions

With the lowly status conferred on them by their rural origins, migrants must therefore survive in the cites without the privileges and advantages that are taken for granted by the city dwellers.

Mietanzeigen im urban village GuangzhouRooms to let in the urban village Guangzhou (© Bettina Gransow )

Thus they have become a group in the city that is restricted, regulated and controlled[1]. They have to face the prejudice of the urban citizens, who look down on them and fear them as potential criminals, while at the same time taking advantage of their services in many different ways. The self-image of city dwellers as modern citizens, with a higher standard of living and an urban life style, is to some extent only achieved by contrast with a negative view of the migrant population. The result of this situation is that the life of migrants in the cities is characterized by informal arrangements that are creative and precarious in equal measure. We propose to illustrate this with regard to employment, housing, education and health provision.

Employment and Income

The majority of rural migrants are informally employed, either in the informal sector or in informal employment relationships in the formal (public or private) sector of the economy.[2] As they are frequently employed without any contract being signed, migrants find it very difficult to claim their rights, e.g. when their wages are not paid or when they want to demand compensation for an accident at work or work-related illness. In addition, in most cases they have no insurance cover against sickness or accident, and receive no pension.

For many years the average monthly incomes of migrants did not rise at all. Many of them were well below 1,000 yuan[3] per month. The average monthly wages of city workers were considerably higher. Only in recent years, against the background of local labor scarcity and an increasing number of (in some cases) unconventional protest actions[4] by migrant workers, have wage levels risen significantly. Such rises are not, however, sufficient to open up long-term prospects in the cities.

Monthly income of rural migrant workers in Chinese cities (in yuan), 2010 and 2011
Monthly WageAverageEastern RegionsCentral Chinese RegionsWestern Regions
Source: http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjfx/fxbg/t20120427_402801903.htm, accessed 6-24-2012

In 2011, with earnings of 2,015 yuan a month, migrants in dependent employment earned significantly less than self-employed migrants, whose incomes were, on average, 2,684 yuan a month. In the areas of transportation and communications and in the construction industry monthly wages are higher than average (2,485 and 2,382 yuan respectively); by contrast, in the hotel and catering trade (1,807 yuan), in the service sector (1,826 yuan) and in the manufacturing industry (1,920 yuan) they are relatively low.[5] These figures show that the better paid occupations are those which employ chiefly men, whereas female migrants are concentrated in the low wage sector.[6]


The type of accommodation available to migrants in the cities is dependent on the nature of their job. Construction workers sleep in container cabins at the building site, while factory workers are accommodated chiefly in company-owned dormitories, segregated according to gender. Domestic staff and nannies sometimes live in private households. Proprietors of small businesses sleep in their warehouses, factories or business premises. A growing number of migrants, however, especially married couples or families with children, rent private accommodation. Migrants find affordable private accommodation in the rural outer suburbs of big cities or in what are known as ‘urban villages’.[7] These are villages that have merged with cities as the cities have expanded in the process of urbanization. Whereas the formerly rural households in these ‘urban villages’ have been given an urban hukou, the migrants who live in rented accommodation in the ‘urban villages’ continue to be registered with their rural hukou.

There is scarcely any affordable living accommodation for migrants in the inner city districts on account of large-scale redevelopment projects. Nor are there many opportunities for better off migrants to acquire property in the city.

Schooling for Migrant Children

The growing tendency for whole families to migrate together has also led to increased demand for school places for the approximately 35 million migrant children in the cities (2005). However, the majority of the migrant children – some 58 million – remain behind in the country, usually with the grandparents.[8] This is increasingly recognized as a social problem. Until 2005 migrant children were either not allowed to attend public schools in the cities or were charged very high fees to do so; in response to this, in the 1990s migrants began to set up informal schools themselves, especially elementary schools, for their offspring. The majority of teachers in these schools and the teaching materials they used came from the migrants’ regions of origin. However, these schools and kindergartens were not recognized by the Chinese ministry of education; they were tolerated but existed in a gray area. In 2005 the National Congress revised the law on compulsory education,[9] thus providing a legal basis for the integration of migrant children in the urban school system. Despite this improved legal situation, public schools charge fees and create other barriers, fearing that their school could suffer a decline in standards and fall behind in the rankings. Furthermore, there are considerably more elementary schools than middle schools for migrant children, so that the children often have to return to their regions of origin if they want to attend middle school. All this restricts their future prospects from the outset.

Health Provision

Another contributory factor in the marginalization of rural migrants is the dual health system, whereby migrants are tied into the collective sickness insurance scheme for the rural population that was established in 2003. The benefits of this scheme are very limited and for the migrants they are only available at their place of origin in the country, not at their place of work in the city. In city areas with high concentrations of migrants – such as the ›urban villages‹ – small clinics and health centers have come into being, which are designed to fill this gap in health provision for migrants. But these usually informal health care services lack professional expertise and are risky for the patients (for example, the doctors may be unlicensed and counterfeit medicines may be administered)[10] and are therefore not popular with the migrants. If they fall ill, migrants often prefer to adopt a wait-and-see attitude rather than making use of the informal health care offered them by service providers whose trustworthiness they find difficult to assess.[11] A further complicating factor is that migrants are concentrated in areas of work with high accident rates. Apart from accidents that can be identified as clearly work related and are adequately compensated, they are required to pay practically all the costs of health examinations and treatments themselves, which they are generally unable to do. Not infrequently, after an emergency, migrants are forced to break off necessary follow-up treatment in the hospital because of financial constraints.[12] Accidents and serious illness are among the main reasons why migrants and their families fall into absolute poverty.

This text is part of the policy brief on "Internal Migration in China – Opportunity or Trap?".


Xu (2009).
Wu (2011), p. 170.
In 2003, 1.000 Yuan equaled approximately 103 euros.
This is demonstrated by the following example: “In 2007, young Chen, with the help of some fellow countrymen, came to Xiamen where he found a job as construction worker. After two months of work he still had not received his salary. Accompanied by more than twenty other construction workers he went to see his employer in order to take him to task. The employer, however, wanted to pay the salaries only after completion of the whole construction project. After this disappointment, Chen and his colleagues gathered on a highly frequented road and stopped traffic. Twenty minutes later, the police arrived and demanded the workers to leave the road so that the traffic jam could be dissolved. But the workers were not willing to leave without having received their salaries. After another half an hour had passed, some representatives of the employment authorities arrived and informed themselves about the situation. At 7 p.m. the employer paid Chen and his colleagues 24.000 Yuan – and the traffic could flow again.” The logic driving this action corresponds to a Chinese proverb: “Making a lot of trouble leads to a quick solution, making a little trouble leads to a slow solution, making no trouble at all brings no solution” Li (2010), pp.192/193 (translated from German to English by the editorial staff of focus Migration).
http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjfx/fxbg/t20120427_402801903.htm, accessed 6-24-2012
However, it hold true for China (as well as for other countries) that there is still only very little research on qualified migrants (Kofman/Raghuram 2009).
Gransow (2007).
According to research of the Chinese Woman’s Federation from 2008, there were nationwide 58 million children that had been left behind in the countryside by their parents (China Daily, 5-31-2012).
The nine-year long compulsory education comprises six years of primary school and three years of lower middle school.
Bork, Kraas and Yuan (2010), pp. 72-93.
Gransow (2010), p. 24-25.
Xiang (2005), p. 162f.
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