The Social Reproduction of the Informal Migrant Workforce in China

by | 20 Oct 2021

Series: Critical Legal Thinking on China

As “the factory of the world,” China’s development of the manufacturing economy in the past four decades has relied on its large informal, precarious, and marginalized internal migrant workforce. Among the country’s 800 million-strong workforces, around 170 million workers migrate from less industrialized rural hometowns to work in industrialized regions on a seasonal or yearly basis without permanently settling their families in the destination city. As of 2014, 62% of migrant workers still lacked written contracts, 84% lacked pension, 83% health insurance, and 90% unemployment insurance. Yet, the mechanism to keep migrant workers informal has constantly been evolving, redistributing inclusion and marginality, autonomy and exploitation, prosperity and precarity among China’s vulnerable working class.

Recent studies of China’s informal work increasingly approach it from the Marxist feminist framework of the “regime of social reproduction.” The term “social reproduction” refers to the activities that sustain and renew labor daily and across generations. The former includes activities such as dining, rest, and technical training. The latter includes caring for the children and the elderly. Thus, the social and political arrangements of workers’ daily and inter-generational reproduction outside the paid jobs, such as citizens’ access to healthcare and childcare, often impact industrial relations inside the workplace.(Lee 2007; Pun 2007; Lee 2019; Dong 2020) In this post, I also follow and extend this approach by connecting the changing labor regimes in China with the party-state’s changing family and population agendas. Through studying the migrant worker families’ perspectives, we can see that the rising pressure of motherhood (concerning both the number of children and the intensity of childcare) is increasing the job precarity that  female workers are facing. This childcare-driven informalization is happening even when the party-state promotes formalizing factory jobs and abolishes other population markers that had kept migrant workers informal in the past, such as urban/rural.  As a result, gender is playing a more significant role in informal work than in previous eras.

Informal industrial work had existed inside the Maoist era’s planned economy. The party-state had enforced an urban-rural divide in regulating citizens’ means of production and social reproduction via the hukou system (household registration). The hukou system tied rural citizens to their birthplace villages as self-sufficient collectives of agricultural production and social reproduction such as basic healthcare, primary education, and emergency relief. In contrast, most urban citizens were tied to state/collective-owned work units with permanent formal work and “from the cradle to the grave” social welfare provision. (Lee 2007) However, in the shadow of the formal urban workforce, informal temporary arrangements for industrial and service work proliferated, commonly filled by male migrants from rural villages who received nothing more than a lump-sum payment.

Since the 80s’ market reform, the party-state’s growth strategy promoted labor-intensive export-oriented manufacturing competing on low labor costs in the global trade. Responding to central and local governments’ mobilization, large waves of working-age rural women and men migrated to urban and coastal areas, transforming into semi-proletarianized wage workers in export-oriented factories. In particular, millions of rural young women have experienced a dramatic change during the transformation from patriarchal village life to one with rigid factory discipline but with some consumptive and sexual autonomy in the cities. However, the social welfare systems, such as pension provisions, healthcare, and public education, remained divided between urban and rural citizens and strictly tied to the worker’s hukou residency. Acquiring an urban hukou, especially a hukou in metropolitan cities was reserved as an extra class privilege of college-educated workers in the state-owned sector. Thus, migrant workers’ presence and livelihood in their workplace locality remained contingent and precarious. Furthermore, the local governments managed them as “floating populations” who were risks to the stability and security of the locals.

As a result, even though the reform-era party-state gradually relaxed the restraints on the physical mobility of farmer-turned workers and their paid employment, it continued to govern migrant workers and urban workers under different regimes of social reproduction. Instead of formal social protection through employment, migrant worker households relied on wage labor and their household’s access to agricultural and housing lands in home villages for survival. The informalization of the migrant workforce in this era featured a divide between their daily and intergenerational reproduction, a result of the state’s restriction on migrant families’ mobility. For migrants working in coastal China’s factories, the dormitory regime minimizes the migrant workers’ daily reproduction and confines it within the factory. The rest of social reproduction, such as healthcare, disability, pregnancy, and child and elderly care, were externalized to their home communities, creating a large “left-behind” population of elders, children, and some married women (Lee 2007; Pun 2007).

The party-state, directly motivated by the urge to boost GDP per capita, also enforced an unprecedentedly strict fertility-curbing population policy (Greenhalgh 2008). This minimized the social reproduction costs of the population. Family planning policies massively reduced the number of children each family, especially rural families, had. As a result, the country’s fertility rate steeply dropped from above six childbirths per woman in the late 1960s to 1.6 in the early 1990s. (Despite commonly referred to as the “one-child policy” in the English world, the family planning policy allowed most rural families to have two children at the time, accommodating the prevalent son-preference culture. See Greenhalgh 2008.) The dramatic shift in fertility rates produced a young workforce with fewer duties to their families and the rural communities. Chinese economists perceived it as a “population dividend” for economic growth. While the smaller family size drove urban women towards career development and to invest in the “quality” of their children, it enabled many female migrant workers to continue labor migration and be ultra-productive manufacturing workers after childbirth.

The party-state’s changing industry and population policies are re-shaping informal work and labor migration patterns in the past decade. Since 2011, the Chinese economy’s growth has slowed from the unsustainably high rate in the 2000s.  In addition, the decreasing fertility rate has caused a rapidly aging population, both shrinking and aging the workforce. The state is seeking a new economic growth strategy divesting its reliance on cheap-labor export-oriented commodity economy. The new growth model promotes capital deepening, industry upgrading, and human capital accumulation. Influenced by the global-value-chain framework, the upgrading policy understands developmental countries like firms upgrading on the development ladder through accumulating value additions instead of competing on razor-thin profits. (Gereffi and Sturgeon 2013) Standardizing the manufacturing process and formalizing the labor relation is key to upgrading from a cheap-commodity-export industry.

Simultaneously, since the 2016 revision of the family planning guideline, the party-state has switched to a much more pronatalist population policy that seeks to boost the population’s quantity and quality. All families are allowed to have two children since 2016 and three since 2021. In practice, the changes in population policy have induced a minimal fertility rate increase due to the young generation’s low willingness to have more children. Meanwhile, the emphasis on the accumulation of human capital deepens the existing education competition across classes. In this new era, the party-state increasingly problematizes the “left-behind children.” Migrant worker parents often leave them to grandparents’ care in hometown areas when they work in coastal factories. Scholars and advocates have long argued that these children are not receiving adequate care, and parents and children are all suffering from family separation. Yet, the state had dismissed it as necessary sacrifices in the private family. In contrast, as the new development agenda turns towards human capital, the state is increasingly concerned that the lack of quality care constrains these children’s education and their capability to grow into a high-skill creative workforce. Thus, it begins to increase the standard of parenthood and to flag “left-behind children” as a social crisis in want of state intervention.

Also under transformation is the regime of social reproduction. Since 2010, the state started pushing for a gradual rollback of social citizenship’s rural/urban divide. In 2016, the state officially canceled the markers of “agricultural” and “non-agricultural” households in hukou registration. Correspondingly, it begins to merge the rural and urban healthcare and pension systems. The central government also instructs the local governments to promote the permanent settlement of migrants in either destination or sending regions. However, the local governments maintain substantial discretion in setting the criteria for migrants’ hukou move-in and thus the access to a full package of public services, especially migrant children’s access to the local public education system. Many cities tie it to a continuous duration of formal employment or real estate ownership in the locality, leading to the latest wave of class-based migrant settlement. While an increasing portion of wealthier and better-educated migrant office workers and entrepreneurs and their families become permanent members of the local community, the mass of informal workers in manufacturing, construction, and service remain excluded.

Other than the class-based exclusion, my own fieldwork studying migrant worker families in the Yangtze River Delta has found that this new set of family/population/labor policies also has caused a new childcare-driven informalization of manufacturing work, especially for female migrant workers. While the state has stepped up in providing healthcare and pension to rural workers, few redistribution reforms support childcare or eldercare. Instead, it leans more heavily on families to internalize the increased monetary, time, and labor costs of childrearing. (Dong 2020) Intersecting with the party-state’s promotion of patriarchal cultural norms in the past few years, the burden from this rising standard of parenthood falls predominantly on mothers. The working-class migrant families are not exempted from the process. The local governments in the sending regions increasingly flag the once-prevalent family patterns of leaving children to grandparent care as risks of child neglect. The schools also constantly require parents to actively contribute to the students’ school performance and declare grandparents as unqualified partners in education. Thus, female migrant workers, who had been working with their husbands on streamlines even after marriage and childbirth, are now expected to return to their hometown areas to help their school-age children’s academic performances through delicate daily care. The pressure comes from a concerted new discourse emphasizing motherhood from their families, relatives, school teachers, village heads, and, most importantly, peer mothers. The “factory girls” in the 2000s are turning into “student companion mothers” to their teen children in the late 2010s.

This new wave of gendered reverse migration is also changing the industrial relations in the country. Economic opportunities, especially semi-skilled manufacturing jobs, remain scarce in less developed hinterland regions. There are few factories, and they pay at most half of the rates in coastal areas. As a result, the husband in a typical migrant family has to continue labor migration to the coastal regions. At the same time, the wife takes casual manufacturing jobs in the highly informal home-based “returning mothers’ workshops” that have mushroomed around hometown schools in the past few years. The workshops subcontract light manufacturing tasks from the coastal-region factories for a much lower per-piece rate. These workers regularly go out of work, and workshops periodically go out of business. Few workshops are formally registered, and workers do not work with contracts. Combining reduced rates, shorter working hours, and out-of-work durations, a returning mother worker earns less than one-third of what she earned as a migrant worker before/ what her husband is making now. When working as migrant factory workers in industrial areas, they were never regarded as formal workers with full social-reproduction citizenship rights. But now, even their productive labor has become more precarious, informal, and flexible. Little does the local community or the party-state appreciate these returning mothers’ unpaid care labor in raising a new generation of skilled Chinese workers that makes the industry upgrading agenda possible. What’s more, their new motherhood tasks are also transforming them into the new scattered rural labor reserve with less bargaining power in the value chain.

This chart summarizes different developmental stages’ industry/labor/population agendas. Reviewing China’s changing patterns of labor informality shows that economic growth and labor policies are deeply intertwined with the politics of social reproduction and population. It also calls for more attention to migrant worker families, their livelihood strategies, family practices, and migration patterns under various political and social constraints. Whether their family strategies align with the state’s policy agendas often determines the destinies of both.

Works cited

Dong, Yige. 2020. “Spinners or Sitters? Regimes of Social Reproduction and Urban Chinese Workers’ Employment Choices.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 61 (2–3): 200–216.

Gereffi, Gary, and Timothy Sturgeon. 2013. “Global Value Chain-Oriented Industrial Policy: The Role of Emerging Economies.” Global Value Chains in a Changing World 329.

Greenhalgh, Susan. 2008. Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng’s China. Univ of California Press.

Lee, Ching Kwan. 2007. Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt. Univ of California Press.

———. 2019. “China’s Precariats.” Globalizations 16 (2): 137–54.

Pun, Ngai. 2007. “Gendering the Dormitory Labor System: Production, Reproduction, and Migrant Labor in South China.” Feminist Economics 13 (3–4): 239–58.

Yiran Zhang is an SJD candidate at Harvard Law School


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