retirement plans for older migrant workers?

Yesterday, a weixin article claimed that among China’s 230 million migrant workers, the number of workers over 50 years of age could be as high as 36 million. These 36 million, of course, were the first generation of migrant workers, who left their villages in 80s and early 90s — before reforms had spread beyond the borders of special economic zones and coastal cities, to work in China’s newly opened factories.

The article raises the important and increasingly pressing social question, where will these workers retire? And what will they do in the absence of retirement plans? The journalist interviewed older workers in the northern city of Lanzhou, where there is little option but to retire to their hometowns. According to a report published in 2010 by the Chinese Elder Workers Council, 84.7% of city and town residents have a pension, averaging 1,527 yuan a month. In contrast, the percentage of rural residents with a pension is 34.6% and the average income is 74 yuan a month.

In Shenzhen, the debate over what to do with older migrant workers has been ongoing since March 1987, when the city legalized the participation of rural migrants in pension plans. Indeed, Shenzhen has been at the forefront of reforming China’s pension plans, allowing self-employed entrepreneurs to buy into pension plans (1992), and provided pension supplements for regional workers and for non-Shenzhen residents to collect pension benefits in the city (1999). In 2007, twenty years after migrant workers were permited to buy into pension plans, there was a rash of articles about Guo Jinzhao (郭锦钊), the first migrant worker to collect a monthly pension in Shenzhen (at the time of the article 1,005 yuan a month).

Over 25 years since the debate about migrant workers began and the celebratory publicity campaigns notwithstanding, the majority of Shenzhen migrant workers has not earned enough to either retire in the city or to have purchased into pension plans. In 2012, Wen Qingqiang published a photoessay on the city’s “naked old tribe (裸老族)”. The gist of the article anticipates the Tencent post: older migrant workers can not afford to stay in the city where they have lived and worked for the past several decades. Instead, their most viable retirement option is returning to their hometowns.

Note about language: In Chinese, the expression for “rural urbanization” is more specific than its English translation, highlighting both extant labor regimes and the administrative structure of the Chinese state apparatus: 农村城镇化, literally means, “agriculture villages city town transformation”, or “the transformation of agricultural villages into cities and towns. The distinction between cities and towns is relevant, of course, because within the Chinese state apparatus, cities rank higher than towns (which rank higher than villages) and are thus more eligible for state funding and preferential policies. At the level of geopolitics, then, rural urbanization has referred to the restructuring of spatial hierarchies. The transformation of rural Bao’an County to Shenzhen Municipality remains the national poster child for successful rural urbanization.

Importantly, rural urbanization has also occurred through the migration of rural residents from agricultural villages and townships to the country’s cities. In fact, these workers are literally called “farmer-workers(农民工)”, an expression that not only emphasizes rural origins, but also their role within urban hierarchies. This point bears repeating because rural migrants have not been fully integrated into urban societies, either formally (through hukou and concomitant welfare benefits) or informally (through friendships and associations that might blur the distinction between urbanites and bumpkins). Here, although Shenzhen has taken initiatives to experiment with tweaking the hukou system, nevertheless, the ideological distinction between urbanites and bumpkins continues to shape both public policy and the concomitant imaginary of just who is (and is not) a Shenzhener.

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