LEWI Research

Chinese migrant factory workers across four decades: shifts in work conditions, urbanization, and family strategies  

Dr Kaxton SIU

Today about 90 million urban Chinese factory workers are migrant workers from the countryside, comprising the largest and most rapidly expanded industrial working class in history. Before the mid-2000s, these workers from the countryside were employed only temporarily in factories, and almost all were young, very poorly paid and exploited. But as labor shortages have developed and as restrictions against residing in China’s cities have relaxed, they are not as vulnerable as they were in previous decades. More of them are older, married, and have children, and many of them would like to settle on a permanent basis near their workplace with their families. Drawing on three decades of on-site interview research up through November 2018, the authors examine the changes that have occurred and the obstacles – such as the remaining difficulty of obtaining an affordable urban education for their children – that still stand in the way of migrant Chinese families remaining intact and settling permanently in urban areas. As a means of conceptualizing the implications of the shifts in migrant workers’ circumstances, especially for work relations and labor disputes, their evolving situation will be analyzed through the paradigm of Albert O. Hirschman’s concept of Exit vs. Voice.


Jonathan Unger and Kaxton Siu 


Supported by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University with funding for the project ‘A Pilot Study to Explore Response Strategies and the Family/Work'. Dynamics of Married Migrant Workers in China and Vietnam’


HK$88,680 (US$11,330)