Before joining the ILO in 2014 I’d heard this remarkable fact about Chinese migrant workers: at some 274 million, they represent the greatest population movement in human history. But what I didn’t realize is, I’m actually one of them.
Typically, we think of migrant workers as those who leave the countryside in search of jobs in China’s towns and cities. In Mandarin, they’re known as the nongmingong, or “rural migrant workers”. They’ve been an integral part of the urbanization and globalization process over the past three decades, helping to elevate China to become the world’s second-largest economy.
Evidently, however, I and many of my colleagues and friends in Beijing fit the same definition. We too are all “living and working in a place other than [our] birthplace for more than 12 months”.
Public attention in China tends to focus, understandably, on the many millions of internal migrant workers and the need to protect their rights. Comparatively little attention is paid, however, to the over 10 million Chinese migrant workers overseas.
In 2015, these workers sent home over USD$ 60 billion in remittances. Migrant workers contribute to the development and economic growth in their host countries, while their home countries and communities greatly benefit from their remittances and the skills acquired from their migration experience.
Many are poorly informed about the reality far beyond their borders and are taken in by unscrupulous recruiters. For example, a recent report in the Chinese media told the story of a man who responded to an online ad promising job placement overseas.Yet, despite their enormous contribution, these workers often suffer low wages, unsafe working conditions, and a lack of social protection and integration, or worse, fall prey to abusive practices such as excessive recruitment and remittance fees that subject them to bonded labour or erode the lion’s share of their income.
The man paid the company some RMB 78,000 (about USD$ 12,000) to find him a job as an interior decorator in Paris. Once he arrived in Paris, he discovered the job paid a third of what he’d been promised. Worse still, the company kept his passport and documents, which meant that he was living in France illegally.
Upon returning to China, the man tried to reclaim his recruitment fee only to find that the company had disappeared without a trace.
I’ve become all too familiar with stories like this in my present role as ILO National Programme Coordinator of the EU-China Dialogue on Migration and Mobility Support Project, a joint initiative of the ILO and International Organization for Migration (IOM) with support from the European Union.
To help protect migrant workers from China, the ILO has reached out to more than 400 public officials, 75 recruitment agencies and 40,000 potential migrants through a combination of training, research, study tours and information campaigns.
Our goal is to broaden the opportunities for legal migration, make migrants aware of the risks they run seeking work through irregular channels, and help governments, trade unions and recruitment agencies provide migrant workers with better services and protection.
Through the EU-China Dialogue on Migration and Mobility Support Project, the ILO is also conducting research that reviews policy, then assesses and forecasts EU labour market demand. We hope these studies will help to enhance and diversify the legal channels for prospective migrants from China who wish to work in Europe.
We will also advocate for the necessary strengthening of cooperation between different government departments, to more effectively manage labour migration, given the current division of responsibility and competency among different government authorities.
In a perfect world, workers wouldn’t have to feel obliged to leave their homes and families in order to find a decent job. But as long as they do, we must work to ensure that they can do so safely and legally.