The 58 Million 'Left-Behind' Children in China

Reflections on the wider cultural issues associated with the migrant workforce that is powering China's super-competitive export sector

March 2012


Photos, from left: 1) SAI Lead Trainer Jane Liu (right), Senior Manager Matt Fischer-Daly (second from right) and WE Trainer Harrison Xu (left) with Zhang Zhiru, founder of the Shenzhen Migrant Rights Centre; 2) Transparency is of utmost importance at the Center, where records of donations and funding are publicly available; 3) "Little Brother Wants to Sleep" - photo by Sina Weibo user Mian Qu, which captures the plight of the 'left behind' children.

On a recent field visit to China, the topic of the 58 million "left-behind" children was brought up by virtually everyone we met with: leaders of grassroots migrant worker centers, global brands and government officials. The children's parents are the men and women who have migrated to work in 'China Inc.' -the super-competitive export manufacturing industry that has surged in growth over the past 30 years. These men and women are the very migrant workers that have lifted China's economy to new heights, and their remittances sent home have lifted 49 million people out of poverty since 1990.

58 million is a huge number of children - equal to 2/3 of all children in the U.S.; thus the stress on society of separating a generation of families cannot be underestimated. In the best situations, the grandparents of left-behind children raise them.  

Although these children are not a top media story in the West, many Chinese are taking action to support the next generation. In some cases, migrant workers-turned leaders have developed grassroots worker-support centers in the heart of migrant worker neighborhoods. In Shenzhen, the 30-year old city of 12 million residents, Zhang Zhiru runs a migrant workers center that assists workers maintenance of relationships with their children back home, among other critical services. Other labor activists are developing the 'workers' touchpad,' a notepad-style computer equipped with software to navigate the transportation, communications and legal labyrinths that workers face in attempts to travel to see and regularly maintain contact with their children.  As a way of connecting with workers and as a potent bottom-of-the-pyramid concept, the "workerpad" has potential for massive success.

Importantly, governments at multiple levels have been taking action, especially because of the risks to social stability. In cities known as 'labor exporters,' progressive-minded leaders have introduced incentives to lure employers and workers back home. At the national level, Social Security Insurance (SSI) implementation may be the single most important government program to hold the social fabric together and transition the country to a more balanced export-domestic market economy.

The current SSI program builds on the social insurance program established by the Government of China in the 1950s. Revisions to the SSI law that came into force in July 2011 streamlined various regulations into one, and established "roaming," the ability to access benefits anywhere in the country, regardless of one's 'Hukou' (household registration system). Prior to that 2011 revision, a citizen who worked and contributed to SSI in one city (their local 'Hukou') could not access benefits in a second city; the revised SSI law established geographic transferability of SSI accounts.

SSI implementation needs to be part of any discussion of working conditions of factories such as Foxconn. To achieve implementation requires collective action, considering that its  scope covers public pension, workers compensation insurance, health insurance, maternity/child-care, and unemployment insurance for all workers of 20% of the world's population. Such action is urgent to ensure that the current generation of 'left-behind' children have an adequate foundation to lead as the next generation of China's labor force.

Article written by SAI Senior Manager, Matt Fischer-Daly. For more information, contact SAI Communications Manager Joleen Ong (

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