Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

China's workforce at a crossroads

By Kevin Voigt, CNN
March 21, 2013 -- Updated 0525 GMT (1325 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • China's climb to the world's second largest economy was built by Chinese workers
  • Chinese workers are demanding a greater share of the wealth and better access to social services
  • Higher production costs in the coastal areas are moving more jobs to rural areas of China
  • Despite Beijing's economic rise, about 400 million Chinese still live on less than $2 a day

Editor's note: Each month, CNN's Kristie Lu Stout sits down with three China experts to discuss what's really driving the world power and economic giant. This month's episode will focus on Chinese migrant workers. See here for air times for CNN's "On China."

Hong Kong (CNN) -- China's extraordinary climb to the world's second largest economy was built on the back of Chinese workers, many of whom left rural farms to migrate for work in coastal factories.

But as China's wealth rises, workers are demanding a greater share of the wealth and better access to social services. And as this month's edition of "On China" examines, the young generation of worker are tech savvy, aware of their rights and choosier about where they go for work.

"They're on the Internet more ... on especially Weibo, China's social media, Twitter-like thing. They're able to connect with others, see what others are doing," William Nee of China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based NGO which defends workers' rights, told CNN.

"And in cases where there are strikes or things like that, they can put it out there on Weibo and other people can learn about it," he said. "They can look online for labor rights and labor contract law."

On China: The Hukou System
China's migrant misery
Achieving the 'Chinese dream'
Behind the scenes at China's NPC
China's migrants struggle
On China: Consumption booming

One of the greatest issues for China's 250 million migrant workers is the "hukou" system of household registration. Migrant workers often can't register in the cities where they work, and subsequently can't qualify for social services such as public education or social security.

"When I talk to migrant workers about a vast array of problems, I think, this usually rises to number one," Rob Schmitz, a Marketplace correspondent in Shanghai, told CNN. "And I think, for them, the biggest reason this is such a big problem is that they are treated like illegal immigrants inside of their own country."

This hits the children of migrant workers. "Many children are born in these larger cities where their parents have moved to. This is their hometown, as far as they know it," Schmitz said.

READ: Life in limbo for China's migrant families

But as China's coastal provinces -- which were first opened for Western-style economic reform in 1979 -- grow more expensive, more companies are moving factories into rural areas, sparking a new wave of development and giving workers more options closer to home.

"The companies are looking for cheaper resources, cheaper land, cheaper labor in the home provinces, like in the rural remote provinces in China," Suki Chung, executive director, Labor Action China, told CNN.

"In places like Shenzhen, the Pearl River Delta, these places have become very expensive. So for migrant workers perhaps in the past, you make a salary and then bring it home, because of the cost of living how it's risen so quickly, it's no longer viable," said Nee.

"Taking a salary that's a little bit less back near their hometown is a much more attractive option, especially since they can visit their family much more easily."

Meanwhile, the low-skilled factory jobs in Shenzhen are being replaced by higher skilled employment.

"Shenzhen is moving up the value chain," Schmitz said. "A lot of the jobs now that are available at places like Huawei (the telecommunications giant) ... you're seeing a lot of folks who graduated from 'dazhuang,' which is the vocational colleges of China, coming to Shenzhen instead of folks who have dropped out of high school perhaps or just come right off the farm."

As China moves from an export-driven, investment-led economy toward domestic consumption growth, the nation depends on the rising buying power of its workforce. Still, "400 million people in China still live on less than $2 a day," Schmitz said.

"(China) is going to experience slower growth. Slower growth probably means fewer job," Schmitz said. "I think there are a lot of threats that lie ahead."

CNN's Kristie Lu Stout contributed to this article

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0513 GMT (1313 HKT)
Chinese are turning to overseas personal shoppers to get their hands on luxury goods at lower prices.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 0908 GMT (1708 HKT)
Experts say rapidly rising numbers of Christians are making it harder for authorities to control the religion's spread.
August 11, 2014 -- Updated 0452 GMT (1252 HKT)
"I'm proud of their moral standing," says Harvey Humphrey. His parents are accused of corporate crimes in China.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1942 GMT (0342 HKT)
A TV confession detailing a life of illegal gambling and paid-for sex has capped the dramatic fall of one of China's most high-profile social media celebrities.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 0410 GMT (1210 HKT)
President Xi Jinping's campaign to punish corrupt Chinese officials has snared its biggest target -- where can the campaign go from here?
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 0712 GMT (1512 HKT)
All you need to know about the tainted meat produce that affects fast food restaurants across China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 0230 GMT (1030 HKT)
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 0911 GMT (1711 HKT)
Is the Chinese president a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 0344 GMT (1144 HKT)
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 0631 GMT (1431 HKT)
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1124 GMT (1924 HKT)
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 0656 GMT (1456 HKT)
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Along a winding Chinese mountain road dotted with inns and restaurants is Jinan Orphanage, a place of refuge and site for troubled parents to dump unwanted children.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0836 GMT (1636 HKT)
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout invites Isaac Mao, Han Dongfang, and James Miles to discuss the rise of civil society in China and social media's crucial role.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0334 GMT (1134 HKT)
Chen Guangbiao wants rich people to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention, including buying lunch for poor New Yorkers.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
ADVERTISEMENT