Delivering on Migrant Futures in China
Behind the story of China’s rapid economic development is the growing instability of life for the country’s young migrant workers, who are increasingly ditching factory work for short-term, informal jobs.
It is impossible to understand China and its economy, society and politics today without a grasp of the huge and complicated question of the country’s migrant workers. Despite the immense size of this population, and their major contributions to economic development, they are a generally less visible part of the global story of China’s rise.
In this article, based on my field research, I will look at the current state of China’s migrant population – in particular of the new generation of migrants. What are their lives like? And what does this tell us about China's future challenges?
As of 2019, the total number of migrant workers in China was 288.36 million. While they have played a crucial role in both urban and rural economic development, this population continues to face systemic discrimination, denying them access to basic public services and labor protection and making their lives in the city precarious.
Today’s migrant population is predominantly young, with 51.5 percent born after 1980. They are better educated and increasingly turn away from bleak and unrewarding manufacturing jobs, hoping for more autonomy and flexibility.
China’s booming platform economy has become an important channel for absorbing migrant workers. However, working under the platform’s algorithm that seeks to maximize efficiency, riders are essentially deprived of their autonomy and commit themselves to a new form of exploitation.
Another phenomenon among young migrant workers is so-called “day pay work,” which refers to short-term work of various kinds undertaken outside a labor contract, and for which pay is calculated on a per-day or hourly basis. As the next pay-day is never guaranteed, this highly unstable labor situation causes risks to the workers and to social stability.
The Origins of the “Floating Population”
In the early stage of reform and opening up from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, rural land reforms and other changes drove an increase in labor productivity and enthusiasm in China’s countryside, and these factors led to a surplus of agricultural labor. In the coastal areas of the country’s southeast, meanwhile, the establishment of the first special economic zones (SEZs) focusing on labor-intensive enterprises created growing demand for cheap labor.
It was against this backdrop that huge numbers of Chinese from the countryside began working in the cities. This happened first as local agricultural laborers close to manufacturing centers in Guangdong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and other developing provinces moved into urban areas – leaving their land, as we say, but not their hometowns. As the process of industrialization and urbanization expanded, however, excess labor started flowing from the rural areas of inland China to coastal cities in the east. In this case, farmers were leaving not only their land but also their hometowns. A rhyme that emerged in the 1980s described the phenomenon clearly: "From east, west, south and north they’ve gone; all for wage work in Guangdong.”
But when we talk in English (or German) about China’s “migrant workers,” the term actually disguises a hugely complex set of social and political facts that are essential to understanding how China’s economy and society work. The term in Chinese, nongmingong, literally translates as “peasant worker” or “farmer worker,” imbedding a reference to the fundamentally rural or agricultural nature of these people as given by their household registration status. Those born in the countryside, or born to parents from the countryside (according to their registration), are coded as “rural” within this system, and maintain this connection to their rural hometowns – even if they have little connection to the countryside and work in non-agricultural industries. So Chinese “migrant workers" are those mainly engaged in non-agricultural industries outside of their registered rural hometowns, with wage income as their main source of livelihood.
According to a report released by China’s National Bureau of Statistics in April 2019 (“Statistical Survey of Migrant Workers in 2018”), the total number of migrant workers in China was 288.36 million – roughly 56 percent of the total population living in the European Union. 172.66 million members of this overall migrant population were migrant workers living and working outside their home provinces, according to the survey.
The manufacturing and construction sectors were the main sources of employment for migrant workers, accounting for 27.9 percent and 18.6 percent respectively, while 12.2 percent were employed in residential services, repairs and other services and 6.7 percent were employed in the food and beverage sector.
For the Chinese government, the migrant population is a source of deep ambivalence. On the one hand, they play a crucial role in both urban and rural economic development. On the other hand, they present challenges for the urban environment and social order. During the first two decades of reform and opening, up to around 2000, these factors resulted in alternative periods of openness and restriction in policies on the movement of the rural population. A period of tight restriction of movement was followed by support for greater mobility, followed again by strengthening controls over undirected flows, and finally leading to a policy of more orderly and directed population flows.
In 1995, in order to alleviate pressure on public management and public security in China’s cities, the government issued a new regulation called Opinions on Strengthening the Management of Migrant Population. The regulations mandated that migrant workers wanting to work in the city be in possession of two permits, a "Temporary Residence Permit" and an "Employment Permit." According to the regulation, those not in possession of these permits could be subject to detention by police, removal from the city, and return to their place of rural registration, often with fines and fees levied on family members for their release.
Over the past two decades, the plight of China’s migrant workers has continuously drawn public attention, not only because of the burden this population places on urban social management, but also because the conditions under which they live and work are substandard, or even cruel.
In the early days of reform and opening, the labor rights of migrant workers were poorly protected owing to a lack of national labor policies, an incomplete legal system, and the relatively low level of economic and social development at the time. When a fire broke out at in a toy factory in Shenzhen in November 1993, killing 87 people and injuring 51, the tragedy shocked the whole country. This played some role in promoting the formulation of the PRC’s first Labor Law, introduced in 1994.
Over the past two decades, more and more journalists and scholars, both in China and overseas, have studied and reported on labor issues in China. For example, Professor Pun Ngai of the University of Hong Kong recorded the pain and resistance of female workers at Chinese factory dormitories in her 2005 book Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Marketplace.
Educated and Engaged
Data from 2018 shows that the general level of education among migrant workers, though still low relative to the urban population, has risen. Of the total migrant population, 55.8 percent now have junior high school education, while 16.6 percent are high-school educated and 10.9 percent have junior college education. This migrant population is also predominantly young, those born after 1980 now accounting for 51.5 percent of the total.
These factors mean the migrant population issue has entered a new stage. Compared with migrant workers who entered the cities at the beginning of the reform and opening period, today’s new migrant generation is more highly educated and better connected, eager and able to obtain more information and voice their demands. They tend to have higher expectations not just for their current jobs but for their future professional development. They pay greater attention to their labor rights and are no longer content – like the previous generation – to endure long hours and low wages.
This transformation can be seen in numerous cases in the past decade or so in which migrant workers have taken action to push for better work conditions and pay, through collective action or through acts of desperation. Some of the most dramatic cases came in 2010, as 14 workers at factories operated by Foxconn, or Hon Hai Precision Industry, the world’s largest electronics manufacturer, committed suicide by jumping from factory buildings. These were not merely isolated acts, as illustrated by subsequent protest actions, as when 150 Foxconn workers in the city of Wuhan threatened a mass suicide to draw attention to work conditions. Cases like these, in addition to high-profile strikes like that at a Honda parts factory in 2010, drew greater attention to the plight of migrant workers, and demonstrated their growing rights awareness.
The activism of this new generation of migrant workers can also be seen in their greater capacity to organize and make unified demands. They have recognized that it is time-consuming and difficult to resolve their demands within the current legal framework, and so understand that the most effective way to address issues such as low wages is to unite through formal and informal networks and fight for their rights. In recent years, frequent strikes in the Pearl River Delta region, a key center of Chinese manufacturing, have made China’s labor movement one of the most active in the world – even as larger-scale strikes and protests (involving more than 100 workers) have become less frequent as manufacturing has declined.
Statistics have shown migrant wages continuing to rise rapidly in recent years, reflecting major changes in China's labor market. The country’s demographic dividend has vanished. As early as 2010, the working-age population (15-59 years old) began to decline in real terms. The country has crossed or neared the so-called Lewis Turning Point, the point where it has moved to a labor shortage economy, and this has increased the bargaining power of migrant workers.
In the past few years, the idea of “robots replacing humans” has emerged as a policy measure to alleviate labor shortages and achieve industrial transformation and upgrading. Local governments across Guangdong province – including the manufacturing powerhouse of Dongguan – have introduced related policies to encourage development of the robotics industry. Supported by government subsidies, a number of pilot enterprises for automation upgrading have emerged in the Pearl River Delta, and the province announced plans in January 2018 to introduce 20,000 new industrial robots within the year.
As jobs in manufacturing have declined, China’s booming platform economy, providing shopping and other services through online portals, has become an important channel for absorbing migrant workers. Two major food delivery platforms, Meituan and Ele.me (the latter owned by Alibaba Group), together have more than 6 million registered riders. These are mainly men from rural areas born in the 1980s and 1990s, having secondary school, vocational school or high school education. They are quite typical of the new generation of migrant workers.
Increasing numbers of these new-generation migrant workers have chosen to give up regular manufacturing jobs in order to work under flexible arrangements.
Increasing numbers of these new-generation migrant workers have chosen to give up regular manufacturing jobs in order to work under flexible arrangements, sometimes referred to in Chinese simply as “working one day, playing for three.”
In the section that follows, I look a bit more closely at the work of three different groups of migrant workers in order to better illustrate and analyze the situation of the new generation of migrant workers in China. These include 1) assembly line workers, 2) takeaway riders and 3) the so-called “Sanhe Masters.” This last group, named for the Sanhe Job Center in Shenzhen, is an internet neologism referring to young men who loiter in the city waiting to be picked up for short-term work in open labor markets, and who spend most of their remaining time on idle pursuits like playing online games in internet cafes.
“Sweat and Blood Work” on the Assembly Line
Labor intensive enterprises in China generally use semi-automated production, the same method that in the early 20th century achieved great success in the United States, as in the production of Ford automobiles, because it allowed relatively unskilled workers to be coordinated in the production process while greatly reducing the cost of production. On the assembly line, semi-automated production means that semi-finished parts are moved along the production line and process in order, minimizing the waiting time resulting from manual execution of separate tasks. The input and output of semi-finished parts proceeds to a set time and rhythm for each separate process, and each assembly line produces only one kind of product so that workers at each station need only complete one or two simple operations.
Take as an example my personal experience working at a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, the capital of inland Henan province. There, the final packaging of iPads was divided into a total 32 processes, including charging, downloading special programs, adhering product codes, inspecting the device, packing accessories into the box, placing the iPad into the box, closing the box cover, and so on. The entire sequence of events required about 20 minutes from the start to finish.
It was the job of one of the workers to simply pack the data cable into the box, an operation that was to be completed within 5 seconds, and which was repeated by the worker 5,000 times a day for a total of 25,000 seconds, or about 7 hours. Workers were allowed 10-minute rest breaks every two hours on shift. Each operation and movement within the entire assembly line was precisely calculated. Along each of the 12 production lines in the factory, a worker seated at the assembly line focussed only on the space in front of him, repeating a single, monotonous mechanical movement – picking up and putting down, picking up and putting down – second after second, day in and day out. The work did not permit any extraneous thought, nor did it forgive pauses or errors, which could cause confusion along the assembly line.
Export-oriented manufacturing is at the bottom of the global value chain, the profit margins thin, and inevitably companies seek to maximize production efficiency and increase margins by reducing wage standards, extending working hours and raising work intensity. But for Chinese migrant workers in particular, this semi-automated production process becomes “sweatshop work.” Modern factories may be standardized, clean and tidy as suits the demands of production, but workers on the assembly line remain de-skilled, locked into low-skill tasks, and atomized under the highly regimented factory management system. Each station is separated from the next by one or two meters, and speaking or switching positions is not allowed. Without permission from the line manager, no one can take a break, use the toilet or end a shift.
The pressure on workers to supplement their meager wages often means working continuous overtime. During peak production season, workers at Foxconn generally log more than 100 hours of overtime in a single month. If a worker is too slow or does not meet daily quotas, they face reprimand from the line manager. Those who do not comply are transferred or fired. For Foxconn in China, these unskilled assembly line workers have generally been plentiful in supply and relatively easy to replace.
In recent years, as labor shortages have cut into production, Foxconn has even resorted to the use of student workers classified as “interns.” These students, many of them still minors, are pressed into compulsory time on the production line in order to earn credit toward graduation. Reports of these practices have appeared sporadically in the Chinese media for years. In August 2019, following a report by the Guardian on the use of “interns” on an assembly line producing Amazon’s Echo, Echo Dot and Kindle products, Foxconn admitted that its use of interns had exceeded permitted levels, and Amazon announced it would conduct its own investigation.
Each station is separated from the next by one or two meters, and speaking or switching positions is not allowed. Without permission from the line manager, no one can take a break, use the toilet or end a shift.
In such a work environment – and we should bear in mind that conditions at Foxconn are not the worst – it is impossible for migrant workers to learn new technical skills or gain professional or life experience. Many young migrant workers today enter China’s factories with a sense that they have no other options. Often, they work on the production line for a few months until they find they can no longer stand the relentless grind of work and sleep. They quit factory work and spend what time they can relaxing, returning to the factory when the money runs out. For many migrant workers, this is a normal state of existence.
The “Game of Work” in the Platform Economy
In China’s labor market, it is becoming more and more common for the new generation of migrant workers to turn away from manufacturing jobs. "Freedom,” or flexibility, is a key reason migrants often cite, based on my research, for prioritizing food delivery over assembly line work. But is food delivery a job that really offers freedom?
There are three types of employment relationship between food delivery riders and internet platforms: the “exclusive delivery model,” the “outsourcing model” and the “crowdsourcing model.” According to the exclusive delivery model, a platform forms a labor relationship with the rider, meaning that the rider works full-time with a fixed basic salary. In the outsourcing model, the platform outsources the distribution business to regional agents who recruit the riders directly as a “dispatch service” provider, which does not entail a labor relationship even if the rider wears a delivery uniform representing the internet platform. Finally, in the crowdsourcing mode, riders having no employment relationship with the platform but simply register through the platform’s app interface, after which they can compete for distribution orders through the app and receive payment on a per-order basis from the restaurant.
Because the food delivery platform monopolizes the ordering process between end-consumers and merchants, riders must passively accept the platform's operating rules when it comes to delivery fees, assignment of delivery orders and so on. Regardless of the rider’s employment relationship, the platform's management and control of the rider is based on the platform’s algorithm. The rider's data, including location, online time, orders delivered, delivery progress, customer evaluation, and so on, are continuously accumulated and recorded. The platform uses this information to perform big data analysis, intelligently allocate orders, and monitor the rider's route and progress. When delivery is completed, the rider must file an order completion request with the platform.
Through this process, riders are essentially deprived of their autonomy and lose control of their own time. They must work according to the platform’s algorithm. This can in fact be regarded as a digitally upgraded version of Taylorism, or scientific management, and the process of deskilling in manufacturing. Through its data-driven precision, the platform constantly seeks to shorten the delivery time, requiring the rider to speed up and thereby improve efficiency. But the calculations ignore other variables, such as the bad weather or traffic congestion.
Anyone who has observed China’s ubiquitous riders hard at work can readily see the results of this. They rocket through the streets, sometimes driving in reverse, running red lights, all the while glued to their mobile phones. It’s hardly a surprise that delivery riders have become potential killers on the road. In recent years, the number of traffic accidents involving food delivery riders has increased across the country. When typhoon Lekima swept across Shanghai in August 2019, the food delivery platform Ele.me forbade employees from taking leave. One rider delivering meals on a road flooded with rain was reportedly electrocuted.
The rider's work is highly isolating and individualized, designed so that takeaway platforms can encourage competition among drivers. Platforms have designed multi-level reward systems for riders, which determine cash rewards and level upgrades on the basis of a rider's performance. The higher a rider’s level, the more likely they are to receive priority orders, or to be allocated high-paying orders that are close by.
While there is no obvious competition among the riders, this underlying incentive system essentially opts the riders into a situation resembling sociologist Michael Burawoy’s theory about workers being engaged, or duped, by a game of “making out,” in which corporations generate consent in inequality by manufacturing a sense of minor achievements or victories. Through the algorithm-driven systems of takeaway platforms, orders are increased and working hours prolonged invisibly. According to some studies, the average daily working time of delivery riders is 11.4 hours, already meeting the standard for “sweat labor” in the manufacturing industry.
In addition to the reward system, platforms have also designed a set of key performance indicators (KPI) to regulate rider performance. Penalties can be levied on riders for poor brand representation in terms of personal dress, etiquette, speeding or other safety issues, etiquette, negative reviews and so on. These are generally dealt with through fines on riders, and in more serious situations riders may be removed from the platform. Monthly evaluations directly impact the income of riders. Under these systems, riders are in a weak and passive position, their only alternative being to accept the terms, evaluations and penalties of the platform.
Nor can we forget that in this app-regulated process, consumers provide an additional level of intervention in the rider’s labor situation, beyond that of the platforms and merchants. Consumers too can track the rider’s order pick-up and delivery route, issue reminders or cancellations, and evaluate performance.
Platforms, in order to foster consumer loyalty, adhere to “consumer first” policies that put the primary emphasis on the consumer experience over the circumstances of the rider. This places riders at a distinct disadvantage, effectively marginalizing their experiences and offering them no recourse if consumer actions are unfair or even inadvertent (wrongly clicking on a poor review, for example). The asymmetric nature of the relationship between the rider and the user means that riders must invest a definite degree of emotional labor in communicating with users from the time orders are received – sending updates and so on – in order to avoid possible misunderstandings that could impact their performance reviews.
The process described above should emphasize how takeaway delivery is a job with low barriers of entry and low skill requirements. Anyone with sufficient time can register through a delivery platform and become a driver. From the platform’s standpoint, there is little investment in training.
For riders, the offer of “freedom” may at first seem enticing. Most platforms try to motivate riders with the idea that monthly earnings of between 5,000 yuan (650 euro) and 10,000 yuan (1,050 euro) are possible depending on how hard they work. But while riders can theoretically have flexibility in how long and often they work, the algorithmic system is gamed in such a way that more and better delivery orders and higher evaluation scores depend on being online and available. This means that the boundary between work time and free time becomes ambiguous. Even though there is no tangible production management system as in the case of the assembly line, the rider is constantly under the supervision and direction of the algorithm and the interests it serves and has no real freedom.
For riders, the offer of “freedom” may at first seem enticing. . . [But] the rider is constantly under the supervision and direction of the algorithm and the interests it serves and has no real freedom.
The takeaway platform economy has fostered its own culture of waiting and anticipation that has become part of the work lifestyle. Riders must be online in the mornings to await orders, even though the peak order time happens around noon and late afternoon. Therefore, they can often be found congregating in areas near the restaurants that are likely to service delivery orders. While they wait for work, they chat and play on their mobile phones. Some riders take videos of themselves at work, uploading these to short video platforms, or even streaming services – a way to interact with the online community. At the end of their shifts, many document the orders they processed online and share their experiences, a way to alleviate the emotional and mental stress of the job and remain connected.
The Life of the “Day Pay” Worker
The release in 2018 of a documentary called “Life at the Bottom of China’s Labor Market” by the Japanese broadcaster NHK drew greater attention, both in China and overseas, to the phenomenon of so-called “day pay work” in China. “Day pay work” refers to short-term work of various kinds undertaken outside a labor contract, and for which pay is calculated on a per-day or hourly basis. In such cases, pay is generally given to the worker immediately after the work is completed.