What’s new with China’s rural migrant workers?

China’s National Bureau of Statistics released its latest annual report on rural migrant workers for 2015. Putting aside of how trustworthy of official statistics, there are nevertheless some interesting and notable changes worth highlighting.

Broadly confirming what we have seen, the demographics of the labour force are shifting in several ways. While another 3.5 million migrants were added to the 277 million migrant labour force, the rate of migrant labor growth – currently at 1.3% – has been falling consecutively in the last few years. Also consistent with observations over the years, most of the growth has come from migrants moving and seeking work within their home province (2.4%), with the fastest growing region of migrant workers in central China.

Internally, there are some minor changes: the migrant labour force has also got slightly older by 0.3 year, but they are more educated with more workers with high-school and college education and have higher percentage of female participation. And, as expected from policy emphasis and economic shift, there is a slight decline in manufacturing and construction, and a slight increase in service-sector employment.

It is encouraging that the average wage (3,072 RMB) has increased by 208 RMB or 7.2%, but it is 2.6% slower than previous year. The highest-paid sectors are construction and logistics, and the lowest paid are community-based service/repair. Work hours slightly decreased. But still 39.1% work more than 8 hours a day, and 85% work more than 44 hours a week.

Meanwhile, the growing wages have been eroded considerably by rising living costs. For inter-provincial migrants, living costs grew by 7.2% or 68 RMB to 1,012 RMB, which is 1.4% faster than previous year. Among the expense items, housing costs grew by 6.7% and accounted for 46.9% of overall living expenses. And, both employer-provided free accommodation and subsidies slightly dropped (and 46% of migrant workers received no free accommodation or subsidies).

More migrant workers had problem with unpaid wages and they were owed more wages: 1% of migrant workers experienced unpaid wages, a 0.2% increase; the average unpaid wage owed to workers is 9,788 RMB or about 3 months of migrant workers’ average wages, representing a 2.9% rise. This is a growing problem particularly for intra-provincial migrant workers with a 6.4% increase.

Finally, even fewer migrant workers have signed a labor contract: only 36.2% and a decline of 1.8%. Apart from the decline, it is dismay that only a third of migrant workers have signed labour contracts.

Overall, China’s rural migrant workers had a difficult year in 2015: workers’ gains either slowed down or even reversed.

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