The introduction on 30 July 2014 of reform to the household registration system means that a system that has been in existence for some 65 years since the founding of the People’s Republic, differentiating between urban and rural areas, is expected to fade into history. The biggest beneficiary of the reform will be the 100 million migrant workers living in urban China, who will embrace a new identity, settle down in urban areas and gradually become entitled to essential local public services. On the same day, Premier Li Keqiang emphasized during the State Council Executive Meeting that efforts must be made to help longstanding urban migrant workers with relatively stable jobs integrate into urban life and become “new citizens”, enjoying equal rights with other city dwellers and equal access to essential public services. In no way are they to be regarded as “second-class citizens”.
Since the reform and opening up in China, tens of thousands of rural workers have left their hometowns like migratory birds to seek a job in the city. The mass of migrant workers have played a tremendous and irreplaceable role in boosting China’s economic growth. The rapid development over the past decades has been built on this population dividend, and can to a large extent be attributed to the contribution of migrant workers. Yet for the past 36 years since China’s mass migration movements began in earnest, the impenetrable household registration barrier and varied urban and rural social welfare systems have together barred the door to migrant workers, with a direct impact on up to 270 million people.
Undeniably, however, with the development of the market economy and improved rules and regulations for protecting workers’ rights and interests, the economic status of migrant workers has notably risen. The average net monthly income of migrant workers reached 2,609 yuan in 2013, higher than the national urban residents’ per capita disposable income of 2,246 yuan, and 3.5 times the 741 yuan per capita net income of farmers. Thanks to the Chinese government’s introduction of the minimum wage system and implementation in recent years of the Labour Contract Law and Social Insurance Law, migrant workers that were once in an extremely vulnerable position have gained increased collective wage bargaining power. Driven by the economic development of central and western parts of China, both the growing numbers and productivity of local workers have surpassed their migrant counterparts, leading to a slowdown in the numbers of outgoing workers and severe structural labour shortages faced by many enterprises in Eastern China.
When the storm over economic issues like defaults on wage payments has receded, humanitarian issues rise to prominence, triggered by the rural vs. urban dual system and the fact that the new generation of migrant workers has become the economic driving force, with stronger awareness about their independence, personal dignity and rights protection. Given that the number of children left behind in rural areas or floating in urban areas alongside their outgoing migrant parents has reached nearly 100 million, maintaining the differentiated rural-urban system was always likely to result in severe social problems that threaten social stability. In other words, the core issue related to migrant workers has changed in nature from an economic to a social one, while the body with primary responsibility is the government. Seen in this light, the reform to the household registration system responds to the call of the times.
Yet it is worth noting that, although the household registration system has taken a decisive step towards a unified and just system covering both rural and urban areas, it remains a daunting and systematic challenge for migrant workers to be totally able to cast off the awkward status of second-class citizens. Issues such as universal access to education, healthcare and housing services and coherent and portable cross-regional health and pension schemes will still for the foreseeable future be major reform priorities to ensure the equality of society as a whole.