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Society and Welfare

International Day of the Family

To coincide with the International Day of the Family (15 May) IHLO has produced this short article on the problems facing the families of migrant workers in China and specifically the problems facing migrant children.

Child Song seller in south China

May 15 iscelebrated as the International Family Day and recognizes families as basic units of society as well as focuses concern onspecific issues around the world. The International Day of Families provides an opportunity to promote awareness of issues relating to families as well as to promote appropriate action.[NOTE 1] 2006 saw a special call by the UN for secondary education, gender equality and the discouragement of child marriage. While early marriage is not a problem in China the first two issues are indeed of special concern. In China, a family does not necessarily mean thatparents and children live together under one roof. Due to the social circumstances, geographical distance and state-made regulations (such as those governing place of residency [Hukou]), many parents could work in two different cities while their children may stay in their rural hometowns, under the care of grandparents. They may not see each other for years, not because they do not want to, but they cannot afford to. In Chinese they are called “left-behind children” (liushou ertong) and their parents, “migrant workers”.

“Migrant worker” is not an unfamiliar term for unionists who work on China or follow China related issues. Migrant workers are usually linked to reports on long working hours, poor occupational health and safety measures, wages arrears, ill treatment from the factory management, etc., but these are only some of the problems they encounter as factory workers. When a migrant worker decides to make a living in the city, s/he must also take family issues into consideration. “Should I leave alone or take my spouse with me?” “Who is going to look after my children if I leave them behind?” “I don’t want to separate from my family but we can’t afford to live all together in the city.”

Sad but true, many migrant workers are forced to separate from their children. Without free or cheap children daycare services, while most of the migrant workers are shut in the factories, construction sites and restaurants working long hours up to 15 or more a day, they cannot possibly be able to attend their children themselves. Sending their toddlers to nursery centers, where urban residents send their children to is out of question.  Migrant workers (estimated by official figures to number at least 13 million), receive the lowest possible wages, usually equivalent to minimum living allowance of the city, if the employer pays them lawfully and do not receive any subsidies for childcare that their urban counterparts may do.

China has recognized in its Constitution the right to education for every citizen and introduced a nine-year compulsory education system, stipulating that the state should provide nine-year compulsory education for all primary and junior middle school students. However, the law has failed to guarantee the funding of compulsory education, thus forcing or allowing many schools, particularly those in the impoverished rural regions, to either go on collecting the tuition fees or charge various “miscellaneous fees” on their students in the name of “voluntary donations”, “fund-raising for school construction” or “after-school tutoring fees”. Some schools have been forced to create small workshops and make children earn their tuition by manufacturing goods for sale.

At the same time, while children in the rural might not have access to education, their counterparts who traveled with the parents to cities face the same fate, if not worse. The administrative system of hukou, or known as household registration, limits the possibility for rural children to receive education in the cities, even though city schools are better funded. According to the hukou system, local governments only allocate their resources, such as education, to the permanent residents. In other words, migrant workers’ children, who travel with their parents to a city, where they have no rights to register as permanent residents, even if they were born in that city, are not entitled to schooling provided by the local governments.

It is estimated that some 20 million of rural children staying in the cities with their parents and 9.3% of these children officially do not go to school at their mandatory schooling age, which means that at least two million of children are affected. [NOTE 2]

The situation was progressively getting worse from the late 1980s to 1990s but finally in 1998, State Education Committee and the Ministry of Public Security addressed to this issue by releasing “Temporary Methods for Migrant Children and Teenagers’ Education”.

These regulations allow migrants' children to register at local schools by paying temporary enrollment taxes. The idea is that by making the users pay, the schools can have enough resources to cover the necessary costs involved in admitting more students. However as most migrant workers are paid at best the minimum wage – some several hundred Yuan a month – such a method is proving to be unrealistic in allowing migrant children access to education as the school ‘taxes’ can amount to several thousand Yuan per year. For some schools, apart from charging the migrant pupils the taxes, their parents are also expected to contribute another sum for “sponsorship” or their children’s application for admission will be turned down.

This is why since the mid-1990s, migrant workers themselves have started to organize and run their own schools for their children. These are designed to be affordable and accessible but in charging a much lower tuition fee means there is no guarantees for the teaching quality, sanitary and security. In some areas, we can find the whole school is in fact only one class, with children aged from 7 to 14 sharing a single tiny classroom, learning the same knowledge, regardless of their age and mental development.

The issue of poor learning environments is compounded by the fact that generally these schools are not legitimate educational institutes and cannot issue certificates or redirect its graduates to higher level of education. Local and regional governments have even launched various campaigns to strike these unofficial schools. Most migrant workers, bearing the hardship in the cities in the hope of a better future have the reasonable expectation that their children should not face the same fate when they grow up and yet this kind of schooling cannot possibly offer them a rosier picture.

Seeing that the regulations are not working out, several local governments launched some specific and partial temporary enrollment tax exemption measures, as an attempt to include some migrants' children in the state-run schools. However, tax exemption cannot be given unless one manages to go through a complicated application process, such as providing the parents’ labour contracts, temporary residential permits, original hukou records, etc. Only migrant workers who are formal workers with stable jobs and able to obtain all sorts of documents required, are entitled to this benefit. Once again, the vast majority and the most disadvantaged migrants, who are employed in the informal sectors and have not applied for all necessary documents, are excluded from this new measure. In some cases, even if part of the tax is exempted; migrant workers still find it unaffordable.

In 2003, China was visited for the first time by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Katarina Tomasevski. Her work report condemned China's record on education, asserting that the central authorities have failed to provide education for children of migrant workers, and complaining of arbitrary school fees that many families cannot afford and a budget which does not provide adequate funding for education. With only two percent of gross domestic product spent on education, compared with the minimum six percent recommended by UN, China covers only 53 percent of school funding, a much lower coverage when compared with countries with compulsory education policy. She even commented that “even Uganda, a poor country, was doing better than China in guaranteeing the right to education.” Her comments were not quoted by China’s official media, instead, her visit was described as “Ms Tomasevski appreciated China’s effort in improving its education and has raised some suggestions”. However, a local internet user posted the original Washington Post report on an internet discussion forum, where s/he hinted that Chinese media failed to report the truth. [NOTE 3]

Education, with its urgent but not necessarily politically sensitive nature, has been a hot topic for National People’s Congress (NPC) delegates in their annual meetings in the last couple of years. After increasing exposure, on 5 March 2006, at the opening session of the 2006 NPC meeting, Premier Wen Jiabao pledged that his government would eliminate tuition fees for rural students receiving a nine-year compulsory education before the end of 2007. The new policy would benefit some 160 million school children in the vast rural regions, who make up nearly 80 percent of the country's primary and junior middle school students. [NOTE 4] It requires an additional 218.2 billion Yuan (27.27 billion U.S. dollars) in the central government budget expenditures over the next five years. The government plans to achieve it by increasing financial input for education in the coming five years and gradually raise the proportion of annual education expenditures to four percent of the gross domestic product GDP, according to an official document released on 6 March 2006. [NOTE 5]

However, even this pledge does not solve the problem of those 20 million migrant workers’ children who want to study in the cities. If they want to study free, being separated from their parents and returning to study at their hometowns is the only choice, and yet for many this is not a feasible choice.

As of now, what directly addresses the specific issues facing these children is a draft amendment of the Compulsory Education Law, which is currently being reviewed by China's lawmakers. A special provision has been mooted which will add that children of migrant workers are entitled to receive education at the places where their parents and legal guardians work and dwell and requests local governments to ensure that children of migrant workers enjoy equal conditions in obtaining compulsory education. In fact, the whole set of education problems discussed here is not merely an education issue, but also a hukou system issue; a result of the rising income gap between sedentary citizens and migrant workers; the lack of teacher training for rural areas; the lack of facilities in the cities to accommodate migrant children; and a social support network for disadvantaged groups. Without practical recommendations and a full review of these related issues and policies, even the most perfect compulsory education law cannot make a big difference to these children in practice. Indeed it is also the Chinese Government which needs some education on social justice.


19 May 2006



Note 1: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/family/IntObs/IDF/IDFFrames/IDF2005.htm

Note 2: http://www.ep-china.net/content/academia/e/20040215154144.htm

Note 3: http://bbs.jxgdw.com/archive/index.php/t-18037.html

Note 4: http://english.gov.cn/2006-03/08/content_222570.htm

Note 5: http://english.gov.cn/2006-03/06/content_219838.htm


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