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September 12, 2004

Mass Migration in China to Cities

Some things are so big you can't fully notice them, you can't fully incorporate their significance into your analysis. That's China most days of the week, but the mass exodus of workers from rural areas to its booming cities is almost beyond the imagination:

China, by official count, has 114 million migrant workers who have left rural areas, temporarily or for good, to work in cities, and that doesn't include tens of millions of family members who moved with them. Government experts predict the number will rise to 300 million by 2020, eventually to 500 million.
And the exploitation they suffer is similarly out of proportion to even the exploitation suffered by migrant workers in other places:
In September, Zeng Peiyan, a member of China's state council, or cabinet, announced that migrant workers at thousands of construction projects, many of which are authorized by the government, were owed $43 billion in unpaid wages. "Some have remained unpaid for up to 10 years," he said, according to state media. But they keep coming because poverty in the countryside is hopeless.
You therefore have hundreds of millions of workers being introduced into the global economy with virtually no labor protections at all. This is a threat not just to working conditions in the United States, but to workers in Indonesia, Mexico, Cambodia and other countries which had already flled the "low-wage exporting niche" in the world economy, but will soon find even more exploited Chinese workers taking jobs from them.

Either China begins to meet international labor standards or those standards will become completely meaningless throughout most of the globe.

Posted by Nathan at September 12, 2004 10:04 AM