“I work in a clothing factory in Guangdong. This year after returning home to spend Chinese New Year with my 5-year-old son, I found work in Nanchong, the closest city to my home village in Sichuan. But after 2 months, I had to go back to the factory. The salary here is 700RMB lower per month. I can’t afford to live closer to home.”
For this mother from Sichuan, 700RMB per month is the difference between seeing her son weekly and yearly. It is a story that represents millions of migrant parents in China working hundreds of miles away from their children.
Migrant workers, many of them parents, are the driving force behind China’s economic transformation over the last 30 years. They are the millions of rural laborers who, seeking work and better life prospects than in their hometowns, flocked to the factory floors and construction sites of China’s coastal cities in search of hope and opportunity.
While this brought unprecedented development and infrastructure to the larger eastern coast cities of China, it left damaging demographic and socio-economic challenges in rural areas, where there are now entire villages of children being looked after by elderly grandparents, completely devoid of a working age population.
During a series of research interviews with over 100 migrant parents across four factories, we heard the other side of the left-behind children story, exploring the challenges of family separation from the perspective of parents.
What we found was a group of diverse individuals facing a variety of circumstances, all driven by different wants and needs. In this article, we hope to shed light on the complexities surrounding long-term parent and child separation that has become a reality for millions of families in rural areas.
Parent Migration Choices
Migrant workers lead transient lives. Some move away to earn money when their child is just a few months old. Others bring their children with them to the city, before sending them back to their rural hometown once they reach junior high school age, at which point it becomes difficult to access education outside their home province.
While there are a number of factors influencing where parents choose to migrate, two top reasons that came out of our interviews were; where the salaries are highest, and where other people from the same hometown or family members have “gone out to work.” The living costs of the cities parents migrate to, and the access to quality education for their children, largely determines whether parents have future plans to fully integrate their families into their adoptive cities or to return to their home province after several years of saving money, usually with the aim of buying a house in a city or larger town closer to their home village.
“It’s too complicated here in Guangdong. I plan to stay a few more years and then when I’ve made enough money, move back to my home province. I don’t feel like I belong here.”
Migration in China is often described as unidirectional, with migrants moving from western rural areas of China to coastal cities, or, as the often used term “waves of return migration” suggest, forecast a mass return to the hometown. But for many, there are incentives to keep the benefits and land-ownership tied to their rural hukou, as well as the salaries and opportunities that come from working in top tier cities, without the notion of permanently settling in one place or the other.
The Scale of the Challenge
Measuring this flow of migration back and forth between rural and urban areas reveals the complexities involved in measuring the scale of the issue and what it means to be a “left-behind” child, or a migrant worker parent.
In 2016, the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) released a statistic that set the number of children left-behind in China at 9 million. Prior to that, the previous figure came from the All China Women’s Federation (ACWF), which put the number at 61 million in 2013. The difference between the two figures raises some questions, including how the criteria of “left-behind” has changed from including children with one migrant worker parent, to only those who have both parents working away (see our previous article: China’s Left-Behind Children Disappear). The discrepancy in these two statistics becomes clearer in the context of regional economic development in China.
With Chinese cities expected to be home to 70% of the total population by 2030 (McKinsey, 2015), economic growth of China’s interior cities like Chongqing, Chengdu, and Zhengzhou, are providing increased job opportunities for migrants, which over the next decade may remove the need for parents to work hundreds of miles away from their children. Though are already a few cases of this taking place among the migrant worker parents we spoke with, the wages are still significantly higher, and opportunities greater, in the coastal cities.
In working toward initiatives that help improve the lives of left-behind families, it is key that the challenge be viewed in the context of China’s gradual economic rebalancing. Parents would not have to leave their children in rural China if they were offered the same work opportunities and salaries at home. Being “left-behind” is the result of massively imbalanced regional economic development in China.
The next 10 years will see a very different relationship between rural and urban China, particularly in large towns (镇), which are the focus of accelerated development under China’s current urbanization policy chengzhenhua (城镇化, literally ‘city- and town-ification’). How fast this process takes place and what job opportunities it brings will undoubtedly have an effect on future migration decisions.
Other Reasons to Return: Parenting Duties
The migrant parents we spoke with carried an overwhelming sense of guilt for leaving their children, even though they believe that in the long term, they are building a better future for their family. In recent years, the Chinese government and other research organizations specializing in left-behind children have begun to place stronger emphasis on the negative effect living without parents can have on the emotional wellbeing of a child. A study by All China Women’s Federation in 2013 found that 29% of left-behind children were closed off, lacked confidence or had a sense of inferiority, while another 18% tended to be antagonistic, impulsive and anti-social.
For one parent in Guangdong, the behavioral changes in his 9-year-old daughter along with her declining grades at school, led him to leave the factory and move back to rural Sichuan to raise his daughter:
“I got a call from the teacher while I was working away saying that my daughter’s grades were suffering. I decided to come home 6 months ago to be with her. I’ve noticed changes for the better since I returned, she has more self-confidence now and won two first-place medals at sports day.”
But not all parents have the ability to return home to take up their parenting duties, and for many, although there is a strong awareness of the importance of this, they lack the ability and financial stability to take on these responsibilities. There is a genuine need for more social-support systems focused on migrant worker parents with left-behind children. Regardless of the gradual shifts in migrations patterns, mindsets and expectations, the fact remains that there are still millions of parents living away from their children for years on end, negatively impacting the emotional wellbeing of both.
Business as a Force For Good
Employers of migrant workers play an important role in providing support for parents at work, and worker wellbeing initiatives are already being implemented by industry leading brands to address this. Initiatives taking place in this space include projects that allow migrant parents to bring their children to educational summer camps on site at the factory, parent training, and tech-based platforms providing community support.
The next challenge for these initiatives is how to make them scalable so they can impact the millions of migrant families in need of support, as well as finding ways to incorporate them as a core component of the supply chain strategy. With economic opportunities closer to home likely to draw more migrants away from the cities, how business positions itself to deal with these changes will be a key consideration for the future.