Why do migrant workers leave the countryside to work in cities? The answer may seem obvious: to make more money. And yet, the truth is often much more complicated.
I met a 28-year-old migrant worker surnamed Zhang during the 10 months I spent doing field research in factories in China. He once asked me, “Have you ever wondered why I left the countryside to work in the city?”
I wasn’t expecting this question from a worker. Actually, the answer seemed so self-evident that I didn’t want to bother them with this question. “Isn’t it simply to make a living?” Zhang shook his head and responded, “No, I could have made a living in the countryside.”
I asked him to elaborate. “We like comparing ourselves with others,” he added. “When you see that people in your village make more money in the cities, you want to do the same and make more money, too.”
To be honest, I was a little surprised by this. I had always been told that migrant workers were “naturally pulled” to job opportunities in the city since wages there were much higher than in the countryside.
As we spoke more, I learned of Zhang’s ambivalent attitudes toward modern Chinese society, where everything was measured by money and everyone wanted to be rich.
He told me, “My dream is to drive a Mercedes-Benz around my hometown.” But the idea that he might never become one of those people driving luxury cars on the road depressed him. “It was much better when I was little,” he said. “Everyone in our village was poor. A family with only 10,000 yuan (around $1,500) was already the richest.”
My conversation with Zhang sensitized me to the complicated motivations and values many migrant workers harbor when leaving the countryside to work in cities. Another person I met, Cheng, had similar inspirations. She had come from eastern China’s Anhui province to work in a garment factory in suburban Shanghai.
Since her husband was making a fortune in the construction industry, Cheng really didn’t need an exhausting, low-paying factory job. But instead of spending her days relaxing at home on the couch, she chose to work.
She told me her various motivations for sticking with the job: her love of the big city — Shanghai — where life was fun and free; the constant feeling of financial insecurity that stemmed from a poor upbringing, which made her feel it always better to have a job; and not wanting to lose touch with wider society.
Her final reason was very touching. Cheng believed that women should have their own ideas and make their own decisions. For her, being able to make just a little money on her own gave her independence from her husband.
Zhang and Cheng’s stories are by no means unique. Other rural migrant workers I met during my fieldwork also gave nuanced explanations for their migration choices. One of the prominent ones that many migrants cited was getting away from the overly tight social networks that the countryside fosters.
Guo, a 54-year-old garment factory worker, explained to me: “When I first came to Shanghai, the wage was even lower than what was paid by the factories in my hometown. In Shanghai, higher wages come from longer working hours, and so the hourly rate is actually lower. But the problem with hometowns is all the events you have to attend.”
“Whenever something happens to someone in the village, you need to be there to support them,” she said. “Constantly taking leave from work means fewer hours on the job, and less pay at the end of the month. But if you don’t go, the villagers will criticize you and not be there for you when you need them.”
However, when working out of the province, it is only expected that you return to the village when something happens to your family. You no longer have to leave work for every social event — like weddings or funerals — simply because you are too far away.
The workers’ motivations for migration varied from person to person. Some came for fun — gallivanting across the country with their friends — and didn’t settle down until they got married and started a family. Some came for experience: They were attracted to the opportunities in a big, modern city. And some came out of ambition — wanting to accumulate some capital and social connections in order to start their own business. Many even came for no particular reason and had simply followed the lead of others in their village.
I once read an inspiring social psychology paper written by Chip Heath, a business professor at Stanford. The study found that we tend to see other people’s behaviors as being motivated by the basic needs of physical fulfillment, security, and belonging, while we see our own behaviors as being motivated more by the pursuit of learning, aesthetic satisfaction, self-actualization, and transcendence.
The chasm between us and others is even greater, though, when the “others” are social groups that seldom have the chance of making their voices heard — such as rural migrant workers.
Academics and media typically portray rural migrant workers as one-dimensional, trying only to meet their basic needs. But this dehumanizes and collectivizes them — they are no longer people with individual desires and ambitions. The power of false representation and imagination in creating barriers between “us” and “them” should not be underestimated.
Economic motivations certainly play a role in shaping the decisions of people to migrate, but the stories the workers have to tell about their own experiences are always richer and more complicated.
Knowing and appreciating the complexities of their considerations helps break the stereotypes we have of the rural migrant worker. It also helps us better reflect upon our own migratory choices.
What are your considerations when you decide to job-hop, move to another city, or go abroad to work or study? The moment we realize the complexities in our own decisions, which are often not solely for economic purposes, we should also remember that rural migrant workers share the same degree of humanity and agency in their life choices.
(Because all interviews with migrant workers were intended for academic purposes, no full names are reproduced here.)
(Header image: Construction workers take a walk in Shanghai’s financial district during their lunch break, Shanghai, July 23, 2012. Carlos Barria/Reuters)