07/13/2023, 10.45
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Internal migrants in Chinese cities: paltry pensions, forced to work even when elderly

by John Ai

Ageing and a drastic decrease in employment, with minimal income, are a serious obstacle to the survival of the 'first generation' that has been building the big metropolises since the mid-1980s. A report highlights the lack of social assistance and situations of neglect. Beijing censors complaints and blacks out criticism on social media.

Beijing (AsiaNews) - After experiencing urbanisation and economic reform, China's first generation of migrant workers from the countryside is facing the problem of retirement. With a lack of social security and welfare, many have low pensions far from survival.

According to a report, censored on Chinese social media, about 60 per cent of migrant workers will continue to work until they are too old to do so.

It seems that migrant workers have been abandoned, considered too old to work in the city after a career of 30 years or more. Research conducted by Qiu Fengxian, associate professor at Anhui Normal University, shows that working hard has not improved the condition of migrants.

After distributing 2,500 questionnaires and interviewing 200 people, the report concluded that 60.7 per cent of the respondents will continue to work until they are too old and without strength to continue doing so. And, on average, they will have a pension of only 100-200 yuan (€12.6-25.2) per month.

The report also showed that more than half of the migrant workers have less than 50,000 yuan (6309 euro) in their bank accounts, having worked in the city for more than 15 years. And 15.2 per cent of them have no savings at all.

They usually send their wages back to their hometown for their children's education, but less than 20% of the next generation managed to make the 'social leap' by finding themselves in a higher class than their parents. In contrast, most children drop out of school early and less than 20% are admitted to university. 63.5% of the second generation continue to be migrant workers.

Only 5.1% work in the public and government sectors, which are considered prestigious and stable jobs in China. Moreover, marriage for the next generation represents a huge expense, even several years' salary.

After the Cultural Revolution, people living in the countryside were allowed to seek work in the cities. The first generation of migrant workers, born before the 1970s, started to pour into the metropolis and large urban centres from the mid-1980s onwards.

According to the latest official statistics, China has 295 million migrant workers of whom around 86 million belong to the first generation and are now on the threshold - if not beyond - retirement age. At the same time, the average age of migrant workers continues to rise, having reached 42.3 years in 2022.

In this report, Professor Qiu concluded that the first generation of migrant workers presents a 'social fragility' and that their living conditions and future are not determined by their individual actions.

Most of the workers do or have done strenuous, polluting and risky work for low wages. 40% work on construction sites. 18.9% work in factories. Others are waiters in restaurants, cleaners and security guards.

Health problems and occupational injuries become evident as people get older, but due to concerns about losing their jobs and the high cost of medical services, migrants usually choose not to go to hospital.

Although the authorities currently provide basic medical services in rural areas, migrant workers have to go to the hospital in their home town, resulting in additional transport costs.

As many as 63.4% of migrant workers have never been to a hospital in the town where they work and 58.5 % choose to endure illness and injury without resorting to medical and hospital care even when needed.

During the decades of economic boom, migrant workers are in fact the forgotten group, not least because household registration policies, i.e. the Hukou system, limit people's freedom of mobility.

As a result, rural dwellers do not have the same rights as urban residents, which is also evident from wage statistics whose growth rate among migrant workers is much lower than that of urban workers.

Migrant workers have contributed to China's urbanisation as the main labour resource, but they are victims of unreasonable policies. For decades in Beijing and Shanghai, only certain sectors where companies had difficulty recruiting local workers were able to hire migrant workers, who were also severely restricted during the massive unemployment phase in the late 1990s.

In 2017, thousands of people were evicted from their homes in the middle of winter, without notice, in the name of 'dismissal of non-functional and essential capital', arousing widespread ire.

Although migrant workers want to continue working, as they get older, the available positions become fewer. Restaurants and hotels prefer younger staff. The authorities in many cities have banned males over 60 and females over 50 from working on construction sites, for safety reasons.

The crisis in the real estate industry has forced more migrant workers to leave the sector. The report shows that some migrant workers have bought fake identity cards with a rejuvenated date of birth, thereby also risking ending up in prison. 

Then there is the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the stagnating economy, which have caused massive unemployment. Finally, the slowdown in urbanisation leads to a drastic decrease in the number of available jobs, as witnessed in official statistics by the decreasing mobility of workers, who prefer to seek employment locally.

In 2022, those seeking work outside their hometown increased by a paltry 0.1 %. The report is being widley shared and discussed on social media, while the government authorities respond with the axe of censorship, but this certainly does not prevent the huge amount of problems and social tensions that characterise the Land of the Dragon from being wiped clean.


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