BEIJING // Chen Yumei, a bakery worker, looks reflective as she talks about the more than 10 years she has spent in the Chinese capital. Mrs Chen, 46, from Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, said she and her husband, a shopping mall cleaner, "are pretty content" with their city life.
Accommodation and food are provided by the company Mrs Chen's husband works for and she said the work in Beijing, although it can last from 5.30am to 6pm, is better than the unpredictable life on a farm the couple left behind. The main problem had been not seeing their son. Now 22, he lives with his parents today, but for much of his childhood he remained in Hebei and was looked after by his aunt and grandparents. Even during holidays the couple were often too busy with work to return to see him.
"I feel pretty bad about not being able to take care of my son all these years," Mrs Chen said. "My son has blamed me for not being able to give him a permanent home." The problem is China's hukou, or residence registration system, which has forced the country's 230 million internal migrants to leave behind an estimated 58 million children in the countryside as they search for higher paying work in booming cities.
The mandatory registration system makes it difficult for the children of migrant workers to attend state schools. Mrs Chen's registration is for her hometown in Hebei province, as is her son's, so he had to remain there for school. Many migrant workers also miss out on health coverage because of their provincial registration. Calls have been made since the 1990s for the system, introduced in the 1950s, to be eased, and the national authorities appear increasingly willing to consider reforms. The National People's Congress has indicated that reforms could be on this year's agenda.
On the local level, significant changes have already taken effect in some places. Early last year Shanghai introduced a series of conditions, such as having vocational qualifications and being on the social security system for seven years, to allow people to apply for permanent residency. The rules may ease further, as a senior Communist Party official in Shanghai recently suggested local registration should be given to those who did not have a criminal record, had a stable job and had paid taxes for three to five years.
Shanghai is also taking over many private, and often unlicensed, schools for migrant workers with the aim of improving standards. But, for now, like the Chens, many of China's migrant workers have left their children behind. Yet for all the difficulties the hukou system has caused Mrs Chen, she remains philosophical. "It's unfair but we cannot do anything about it," she said. "Life is that way. You can only deal with the reality."
But many of the rural migrants are young and childless and some insist they are not concerned about the hukou system. "I don't care about the registration," said Lee Qiang, a 21-year-old from Shandong province, south-east of Beijing, who works in a bookshop in Beijing. People such as Mr Lee, born in the 1980s and 1990s, have been dubbed "new generation" migrants. While their parents may have been happy to get by and send money to relatives back home, these more recent urban arrivals, many of whom have not worked on a farm, have bigger goals.
"I think it's pretty easy to make a living here. I'm young and there might be some opportunities coming," Mr Lee said. He described the life on his parents' garlic and wheat farm in Shandong as "tiring and boring". Ge Fang, a 22-year-old Beijing computer store employee originally from Jiangxi province, wants "to make as much money as possible to accumulate capital". She contrasted her aims with those of older migrants.
"The older generation, they just wanted to support their families and as long as it gave them a steady income, that was fine," she said. "They didn't have many aspirations." As a migrant worker without registration, Ms Ge "is not imprisoned" in Beijing and can move for better opportunities. She does not, she said, feel envious of the native Beijingers' "inherited privileges". Over and above their youthful optimism, some young migrant workers do have cause for cheer. Notably, a labour shortage that became apparent before the global recession has recently become an issue again, especially for factories in the south of China.
Several factors are said to be causing the shortage, including the low birth rate brought about by the one-child policy, the expansion of higher education, and development in rural areas that encourages people to stay in their home province to take jobs in sectors such as the service industry. Whatever the causes, for migrant workers the result is higher wages. In Guangdong province in the south, a key manufacturing centre, the minimum wage increased by an average of 21 per cent at the beginning of May, and now ranges from 660 yuan (Dh355) to 1,030 yuan depending upon location. Other provinces, too, have recently introduced significant wage increases.