The migrant workers who helped build modern China have little or no pensions, and cannot retire

BEIJING (AP) – At 53, Guan Junling is too old to work in factories again. But for migrant workers like him, not working is not worth it.

Over the years, they have been leaving farming villages to find work in the cities. Working hard in sweatshops and building houses they couldn’t afford to live in contributed greatly to China’s economic prosperity.

As they grow older, the first generation of migrant workers are struggling to find work in a limited economy. Many have financial problems, so they need to keep looking.

“There is no such thing as ‘retirement’ or ‘pension’ for rural people. You can rely on yourself and work,” Guan said. When can you stop working? It’s not until you lie in bed and can’t do anything.

Now she relies on house cleaning gigs, working long days to make ends meet. Migrant workers can get health care in their hometowns, but not anywhere else. If Guan needs to go to the hospital in Beijing, he has to pay out of pocket.

Like The age of the Chinese people, as well as its migrant workers. About 85 million were over 50 in 2022, the latest year for which data is available, accounting for 29% of the migrant workforce and up from 15% a decade ago. With little or no pension and health insurance, they must continue to work.

About 75% said they would work beyond the age of 60 in a survey of 2,500 first-generation workers between 2018 and 2022, according to Qiu Fengxian, a rural sociologist who described his research in an article last year. The first generation refers to those born in the 1970s or earlier.

Older workers are being hit by a double whammy. Construction has stopped due to a downturn in the real estate market and industrialization due to mechanization and economic decline. Age discrimination, so jobs tend to go to young people.

“For young people, you can still find work, the positions are there, even if the wages are not high enough,” said Zhang Chenggang of Beijing’s Capital University of Economics and Business, where he heads a center that researches new types of work. .

“But for older migrant workers, there are no positions,” said Zhang, who conducted training in four markets in China late last year. “Now, the problem is that no matter how low the salary is, as long as someone pays, you will do the job.”

Other employers contacted by the AP said older workers are less productive or sick. Others did not answer and hung up.

Many are starting temporary jobs. Zhang Zixing was looking for gigs on a cold day late last year at a foreign labor market outside Beijing.

He said he was fired from his delivery job because of his age about three years ago, when he turned 55. In December, he earned 260 yuan (about $35) a day laying ropes at a construction site.

Zhang Quanshou, a village worker in Henan province and a delegate to China’s National People’s Congress, said some elderly migrants are just looking for work near home, while others are still moving to big cities.

“Some old migrant workers are finding temporary jobs, so it is important to build a temporary market and provide a good place to do this,” said Zhang, the secretary of the Communist Party in the village. recent annual meeting of Congress.

Guan, who comes from a rice-growing northern region, worked in a garment factory until he was laid off in his 40s. He then worked in various cities, ending up in Beijing in 2018.

He works seven days a week, perhaps out of fear that the unions will not call him back if he refuses.

During the New Year holiday in February, when migrant workers go home to visit their families, they stay in Beijing as a caretaker for an elderly woman, because the woman needs help and needs money.

“People only want someone who is educated or young, and I don’t meet any of those requirements,” said Guan, who dropped out of school after finishing primary school because his parents had enough money to educate their son. “But then I thought, no matter what people think of me, I have to survive.”

Guan worries that jobs will be more difficult to find after she turns 55. The retirement age for women in China is 50 or 55, depending on the company and type of job. For men, it is 60.

Lu Guoquan, a labor union official, has proposed relaxing the working age, judging workers by their body rather than their age and making it easier for the elderly to find work through job markets and online platforms.

“Many farmers have entered the cities, they are contributing a lot to the modernization of our country,” he said in his request, which was presented to the advisory board at a recent national meeting and saw AP.

As workers age, they are “gradually becoming a vulnerable group in the labor market and face a number of challenges to remain employed,” it said.

Lu, head of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions headquarters, declined a request for an interview.

Duan Shuangzhu has spent 25 years collecting garbage in a suburb of Beijing after giving up his life as a sheep and cattle herder in northern China’s Shanxi province in his 40s. He wakes up at 3:30 a.m. seven days a week. a week to visit. For this, he earns 3,300 yuan ($460) a month and has a basement to live in.

Duan’s wife stayed on the farm, where she took care of their grandchildren. Duan has managed to save money for himself, his children and grandchildren, but has never contributed to a pension, managing his family’s income.

This is consistent with Qiu’s findings in his research, which he published in a book last year. Older migrant workers moved to cities to improve the lives of their children and other relatives, not themselves, he found. Most have little or no income, and only a few have become wealthy. They expected their children to do the same, but many also became migrant workers.

Most of the migrant workers’ money is spent on marriage, housing and their children’s education, Qiu said in his article. “In fact, they don’t start planning for themselves and planning for their final years until they’re 55.”

Duan, 68, has no plans to quit.

“As long as I can work every day, that’s enough for me to live,” he said, standing next to the community’s trash bins, color-coded for recycling. stomach every day is enough for me.


Associated Press reporter Wanqing Chen contributed to this story.

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