Published by Norway-Asia Business Review

In the 90s and 2000s, mass internal migration was needed to spur on China’s manufacturing boom. In that period the inequalities migrant workers faced as ‘outsiders’ in large cities, also came to light.

One of the issues was the so-called Hukou system separating urban and rural people making it extremely difficult for migrant workers to access social services in the cities where they work and lived. The Hukou system limits access to social services to the area you’re registered at, and changing from rural to urban registration could mean losing land rights according to research by the Guardian.

The Chinese government has slowly been rolling out reforms to tackle the Hukou system necessary to continue growing the economy partly dependant on migrant work. According to plans from China’s State Council mentioned by The Diplomat this reform will be gradual and only for “‘desirable’ urban migrants”.

Hukou is not the only trouble on the mind of migrant workers. Much less has than been said about the difficulties of children left behind in towns while their parents work in the big cities. Children are the invisible cost of migrant work. The Chinese government published new official guidelines that seek to establish and improve the service system for the care of left-behind children in rural areas.

Luckily, the government is not the only one trying to alleviate the situation of migrant workers and their extended families; businesses are starting to see the business benefits of reuniting workers with their children.

Absentminded in a factory

With an estimated 61 million left-behind children in China, many parents worry about the safety of their children back home. Naturally, parents will be distracted and worried at work when their children are far away. Are they being properly supervised? How can they be sure they are safe? Can the grandparents really keep an eye on them throughout the day?

The Center for Child Rights & Corporate Social Responsibility (CCR CSR) – a social enterprise that helps implement child-rights focused sustainability programs for companies sourcing in Asia, conducted a survey in 2013. It found that 38% of parents admit to making frequent mistakes at work due to worrying about their children, and 46% eventually quit work in order to be closer to the family. Summer especially is an anxious time for workers while their children require even more supervision during the holiday season.


Children at risk

Even if parents do manage to take their children with them, many other issues arise. 36 million children migrating with their parents in their search for work. Many of these migrant children are not allowed to attend public schools or there are simply no schools or day care available close to the factory areas.

The summer holidays also bring challenges to those factory workers living with their children. With private childcare centres too pricey for many workers or with no family members or caregivers available to step in during work hours, some parents opt to take their children with them to the factory floor.

There is a high risk of injury and a child has to remain hidden during inspections. If a child is found during an inspection, the backlash for the factory and even their clients, can be severe.

Keeping children away from the production floor

In 2016 CCR CSR rolled out a Factory Child Friendly Spaces (FCFS) pilot program at five factories in China. These factory-based spaces provided the children of workers with a safe, inclusive environment where they learned new skills and played games under the supervision of trained staff and at no cost to the parents.

According to Ines Kaempfer, Executive Director of CCR CSR, the need for these space was great. “During factory visits in the summer, we’ve seen first-hand how parents bring their children directly to the production area. Some even get their kids involved in the work to ward off boredom, while others sit on top of the work counter scarily close to the machines. We’ve also seen kids as young as 5 running around the factory completely unsupervised. For many of these parent workers, the only alternative option is to lock them up in dorm rooms all day.”

FCFS was open during the summer months and welcomed both left-behind children and children living with their parents. This gave an opportunity to spend more time with their children after work while keeping children away from the production floor.

Two of the participating factories were toy factories of ICTI CARE’s ethical supply chain program. “As the ethical supply chain program for the global toy industry, finding opportunities to improve the lives of factory workers is our core priority. Domestic migrant workers make up the majority of the workforce at toy factories in China, and many of these workers are parents with Left-Behind Children.

Our child friendly spaces pilots have delivered real benefits for migrant toy factory workers and their families, helping to improve family bonds, reduce levels of workplace stress and anxiety, and boost children’s development. We’ve also seen important business benefits at participating toy factories, with improvements in retention rates among workers who participated, higher levels of trust and better employee-management relationships” said Mark Robertson, spokesperson at ICTI CARE Foundation.

Good for workers and businesses

While the scope and reasons for opening FCFS varied slightly at each of the participating factories, one thing united them all: a wish to cultivate a supportive, positive working environment that could lead to increased staff retention.

Five of the six FCFS hosted temporary summer spaces, while one factory remained open all year round. The capacity of hosting FCFS is set up within the factory and does not rely on continuous external support. FCFS works with in-factory volunteers, uses existing factory space and can run responsibly with one professional staff per 50 children making it fairly low in maintenance costs according to CCR CSR.

102 children attended the five summer FCFS’s in 2016, benefiting 109 parent workers. 60% of those children came to the factories from their hometowns, specifically to attend FCFS to be reunited with their parents. Some children left their villages for the first time to see where their parents live and work.

Participating factories reported significant improvements in retention rates amongst workers that participated in the FCFS. At a participating factory in Yingde City, Guangdong, the percentage of workers who said they would like to stay at the factory for two years or more increased from 62% in the baseline to 80% after FCFS.

FCFS also helped improve worker-management relationships at participating factories. In one of the factories located in the city of Heyuan, Guangdong Province, the percentage of workers who trusted their managers rose from 32% during the baseline assessment to 75% upon project completion according to CCR CSR. All five factories that took part in FCFS in the summer of 2016 have decided to run FCFS again in 2017 according to CCR CSR.

“FCFS brings long-term benefits to factories, their workers and the workers’ children, and the results from the 2016 pilot program clearly reflect this. We’re pleased that more companies are realising the business benefits of supporting parent workers in their factories. We’re planning to expand the scale of FCFS significantly in the coming years and are even looking beyond China to countries with similar challenges,” Ms. Kaempfer noted.

  • An estimated 61 million children are left-behind in China while parents work;
  • 36 million children migrate with their parents but many lack access to education;
  • 102 children joined the summer Factory Child Friendly Spaces in 2016, benefiting 109 parent workers;
  • Results range from increased trust from 32% to 75% in one factory in Heyuan, Guangdong Province, to an increase in workers that want to stay for two years or more at the factory from 62% to 80%;
  • All five factories that took part in FCFS in the summer of 2016 have decided to continue in 2017.


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