You can’t paint a truthful picture of rural migrant workers without talking about their families.
In 2015, while I was conducting research in Chinese factories, one thing I kept noticing was how often the workers brought up their situations at home. Most research on rural migrants in the workplace focuses on the labor process and employment relations, but it is important to include family life as well because of how deeply it intertwines with their work.
Some of the rural migrant workers I came into contact with were happy and contented in their daily work, while some were depressed and lived under constant heavy pressure. One primary reason for the different psychological outlooks was their divergent family conditions.
Thirty-five-year-old Zhang was one of the unhappiest workers I met. He was divorced because his wife questioned his fidelity after his work didn’t allow him to return home for two years. Zhang resented the situation surrounding China’s internal migration and blamed it for the destruction of countless marriages.
He had been left with a 10-year-old son who remained in the countryside with his grandfather. His son was self-conscious about being a “left-behind” child, which made Zhang feel so guilty that he often couldn’t even muster the courage to call home.
Adding to Zhang’s misfortune was the poor health of his elderly father, whose medical bills had almost drained Zhang’s bank account. And because his only brother also worked in the cities and refused to assume any responsibility for the father, Zhang was left to worry alone every single day.
All of these hardships had a detrimental effect on Zhang’s psychological well-being. He suffered from insomnia and depression, and it made my heart ache to hear him blame himself for not being strong enough.
Twenty-five-year-old Sun, on the other hand, was more optimistic. His parents had first migrated to the city more than a decade ago and established a retail business. Sun began working at 16 and was married at 21, and so when I met him he was a skilled worker, happily settled with a wife and two small children. His financial situation was good, and both of his parents were healthy and young. Sun also had sisters who would help take care of the parents when they got old.
This harmonious relationship with his family certainly contributed to Sun’s cheerful disposition at work and his optimistic expectations for the future. He planned to launch a business on e-commerce website Taobao by the time he was 30 and eventually return to the countryside, where his children could benefit from the fresh air and a large yard. Unlike Zhang, Sun approached each day with joy and hope.
Family also has a strong influence on decisions rural migrants make about their work, but it both motivates them to work hard and constrains their choices.
Chu was married last year at 28 — an old age for marriage in rural China — but he was grateful that he had waited to find someone he really loved and was committed to building a happy family with his wife.
Still, Chu has remained stressed by his financial situation since his wedding. Before tying the knot, he was employed as a construction worker, which paid well but was ultimately too dangerous for a family man. Unfortunately, his monthly wage as an unskilled worker in a factory was almost entirely dedicated to paying off his mortgage.
Chu didn’t see a bright future for himself in this factory, and he was tempted to get retrained and learn a new trade. But he also needed a constant cash flow each month to support his family. At the time I spoke with Chu, he was quite confused about what he should do. He felt blessed by his happy marriage but also forced to manage certain difficulties that he wouldn’t have were he still single.
Similar examples abounded in my research. The rural migrants worked hard for their families, but many were then prevented by their financial responsibilities from doing the things they really enjoyed.
Thirty-two-year-old Lee had a passion for mechanics and dreamed of working in automobile repair. But he finally gave up on his dreams since the training would take too long to repay and his wife’s income was not enough to support the family.
Although the majority of mainstream studies in factories will ignore the influence the family has on a migrant worker, their situation at home greatly affects their work life and psychological well-being.
Younger single workers or older workers who no longer need to support a family tended to be more carefree. It was those in their middle 30s with both dependent children and older parents who seemed to be the unhappiest.
Family is also a key factor in explaining where, why, and how the rural migrant workers do their jobs. A male worker, Zhou, once succinctly expressed the situation to me: “Before getting married, I only thought about myself and having fun. But since my marriage, I only think about my wife and son.”
I am not saying that we should only use family in explaining their situations and stop critiquing the situations of internal migration. In fact, migration has been a direct contributor to the negative situations many migrants have found themselves in with their families. But there is no doubt that family is an important contributing factor to the well-being of the worker.
Having to migrate for work undoubtedly makes it more difficult for the rural migrant to maintain a family or to fully benefit from having a family. Moreover, the worker is more dependent on personal family networks since they are so severely disadvantaged in other socio-economic areas.
(Header image: Migrant workers crowd to get on a bus as their shift at a construction site ends, Beijing, Dec. 9, 2014. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images/VCG)