China's Migrant Workers Want Their Children

Stress and anxiety from leaving kids behind spills into factory work
Workers at a factory in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China, on Nov. 26, 2013 Photograph by Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Yang Wei, 26, and his wife share a small apartment in the gritty manufacturing hub of Dongguan, in the Pearl River Delta. Every morning they bicycle a few kilometers to their jobs at two electronics components plants. To see their 6-year-old daughter they take a 17-hour train ride, followed by six more hours on three buses. She lives in mountainous Fenghuang County, Hunan, more than 600 kilometers (373 miles) to the northwest, with Yang’s 53-year-old mother. He and his wife see their daughter once every 12 months for 10 days during the Chinese New Year. “Every time we are together, our first feeling is great happiness that we can once again play with our daughter,” says Yang. “But then as the days pass and we know we will have to leave, we feel sadness and a great guilt. We have given her so little time as she grows up, and we know she again will be without parents.”

For China’s 262 million migrant workers who toil long hours there is another, less recognized hardship: Parents rarely are able to take children to live in the coastal zones where they find work. According to a survey released on Jan. 9 by the Beijing-based Centre for Child-Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility (CCR CSR), a business consultancy, four-fifths of China’s migrant worker parents, about 157 million mothers and fathers, are separated from their children.

Eighty percent of migrant worker parents who don’t live with their kids report feelings of inadequacy, and 70 percent experience guilt and anxiety. About 60 percent of worker parents are distracted and lack commitment to their employers, while close to two-fifths report making frequent errors on the job.

With migrants often working 12-hour days six days a week, there’s little time to raise a family. Says Kuang Duobin, a factory worker in Shenzhen whose 10-year-old son lives with his grandparents in Jiangxi province: “We all really want to bring our children to live with us. But there are limits on what kind of life we can give them in the city.” The hukou, the restrictive residency system, is the real culprit. Unless their parents have urban residency cards, rural children can’t attend city schools without paying exorbitant fees. While fees for textbooks, meals, and other education expenses for his daughter come to 600 yuan ($100) per semester in his hometown, in Dongguan they would cost as much as 4,000 yuan, says Yang.

The estimated 61 million children and teenagers who are growing up separated from their parents suffer as well. Dubbed the “left-behind children” and making up more than one in five of all youth in China, migrant worker kids are dropping out of school in record numbers and at very young ages—as many as 900,000 6- to 8-year-olds every year, estimates Yang Dongping, an education expert at the Beijing Institute of Technology. Young Chinese must stay in school until age 15. But the dropout rate in rural China is hardly surprising, given the poor state of education there.

Sexual abuse by teachers and from relatives is also a problem, according to a study released last September by Beijing Normal University and the government-affiliated China Children and Teenagers’ Fund. Living far from their parents, they are prone to drug addiction and other criminal activities. “Of course, some are better adjusted. But the fact is that the left-behind children often carry some sort of trauma. They usually don’t do as well in school, and there is the risk of them getting involved in bad behavior,” says Sanna Johnson, executive director of the CCR CSR. Says Yang: “As my daughter gets older, I worry that she will start to spend all her time in Internet bars and be exposed to all kinds of bad influences.”

In the factories parental anxiety fuels turnover rates regularly reaching 15 percent annually. When asked in the CCR CSR survey why they leave, almost half of migrant workers cited the desire to take better care of their kids. “Once they reach the age of having a family and their children are away in their hometown, they feel unsettled and want to leave,” says He Keping, general manager of Dongguan-based Delong Lighting Factory, who struggles to keep his small factory staffed with the 100 or so workers needed.

The situation may be getting better. Higher worker wages and labor shortages on the coast have pushed many factories to relocate in the interior, often closer to migrants’ hometowns. The fast-growing towns and villages of the interior provinces provide business opportunities for migrants returning home. Yang says he plans within the next few years to leave his job and return home with his wife. “My goal is to open a small store selling daily necessities and other small things,” he says. “I may not earn as much money, but then I will be able to take care of my daughter and mother, which is most important.”

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