Hui Yin Bi: Ladder to Heaven

Migrant workers who come to China’s big cities in search of a better life face enormous hardships and exclusion from mainstream society writes Cecilia Fan.

For Chinese peasants who live in poor and isolated rural areas, working in the city has always been a ladder leading to a better, richer, more colorful and more vibrant life.

The world has benefited enormously from these low cost migrant workers – they provide cheap food, toys, clothes and furniture, as well as providing services such as the spidermen window cleaners who dangle from great heights outside high-rise office buildings so corporations can maintain a squeaky clean image. There are the maids (known in Chinese as “ayies”, or aunties) who leave their own children in their hometowns, and travel to the cities, where they have helped to raise the children of millions of urban Chinese and expat families.

Previous generations of migrant workers coming to the cities were happy with a life that provided them with a monthly trip to the post office to send money home, and able to give out a reasonable amount of cash in a red envelope to the family and relatives at each Chinese New Year. The feeling of knowing that they are supporting their family at home can sustain them through these long hours of hard labour, being looked down upon by the city people, emotional abuse from bosses, and lonely nights, where they don’t even spend money on long-distance phone calls. This generation came to the city knowing that they would be leaving, and they have no expectation of assimilating into the city.

Nearly 20 years have now passed since China saw its first sizable generation of migrant workers in the early ‘90s. Amongst the more than 200 million migrant workers today, many are second and even third generation and their expectations have changed dramatically.

A recent survey conducted on the “new” generation of migrant workers showed the average time a migrant worker lives in a city is approximately 3.5 years with an average income of RMB1,800 per month (A$300). Of those, 30 percent are dreaming of earning enough money to purchase a home in their city of relocation, and 50 percent are dreaming of becoming a “city person” with a valid city residence permit (allowing them to access public healthcare, education and the right to purchase property in the city).

These dreams are difficult to fulfill due to their economic situation and China’s social system where migrant workers are not fully recognized as citizens of the cities they work in.

Foreign investments which enter into ventures that hire migrant workers are often greatly appreciated by local government, and the investors/managers themselves often feel that they are providing a perfect path to help the poor find employment and build a better life for themselves.

Taiwanese business Foxconn – one of the world’s largest mobile phone accessory manufacturers, employs 400,000 migrant workers in just one of its sprawling factory complexes in Shenzhen. However the company made headlines this year, after the Shenzhen factory saw more than 10 suicides in the spate of six months – many of the victims choosing to jump from the top of the main office building. While I am not attempting to explore why these workers in this particular factory chose to commit suicide, I do want to draw attention to the general situation and plight of migrant workers as a whole.

Under the pile of endlessly repetitive tasks, highly packed living spaces, limited freedom to be outside the “development zones”, these workers still hope there is a way they can learn more about the world, and opportunities for them to gain better techniques and skills, to make friends with other co-workers and have an improved life from that of their parents’ generation. And perhaps, when they feel that these dreams are no longer possible, some of these migrant workers find themselves on top of a factory, building their own ladder to heaven.

Foxconn made some salary increases after the series of incidents. It also put up barbed-wire around the main building and made every worker sign a “non- suicide on-site” agreement. These are simply not the solutions.

Work-life balance is still a new concept in China. It started appearing recently, after 20 years of economic prosperity. However, it still seems a long away for these migrant workers… the ideal of caring for each individual’s development and encouraging their dreams regardless of their social or economic background.

When you design your China venture, make sure you are considering the current and future situation of your labour force. Understand where are they coming from and where they would like to go, whether you can provide what they need today and what they will need tomorrow.

If you are already in a venture and not currently providing what your staff need tomorrow, then at least provide them with the steps and a timeframe, before they are lost and drowning in their own sky in their own sea. And when you are feeling frustrated with these workers, try to understand the stories behind their expressionless faces.

*Hui Yin Bi – The Echo Wall welcomes all feedback. Contact Cecilia at


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