Chinese toy factories open summer camp for migrant workers' children
Now I don’t have to worry about my little son not recognising me when I go back home for Spring Festival,” says Yang Dongmei, a 26-year-old worker in one of the southern Chinese factories that manufactures toys for companies including Disney, Mattel and Toys R Us.
Yang’s two boys, aged two and four, live with their grandparents in Henan province, more than 1,000km away. But they spent last year’s summer holidays in the factory where Yang works, under an initiative that hopes to improve family life for migrant workers in Guangdong province.
The Family Friendly Factory Spaces (FFFS) scheme, run by ICTI Care, a not-for-profit, hosts, entertains and educates factory employees’ children during the school summer holidays while their parents work on production lines nearby. It launched in two Guangdong factories last year, with 85 children aged between four and 13, and plans to expand to more sites this year.
In the pilot schemes, the children were supervised by carers funded by ICTI Care in separate dormitory buildings and kept occupied with books, games, DVDs and other activities. When shifts were over, the families could spend time together, something previously restricted to rare hometown visits.
“We got the chance to be together as a family,” says Yang, who earns about 3,000 yuan (£350) a month and whose husband works in another factory in Guangdong. “Working, then eating as a family afterwards. We never had that before.”
The scheme can also offer business benefits, according to Mark Robertson, director of communications and stakeholder relations at ICTI Care. Robertson says both factories reported improvements in retention rates among workers who participated, higher levels of trust and better employee-management relationships.
Long periods away from their children and fractured family bonds have become the norm for millions of China’s migrant workers, who leave their rural homes to find work in the country’s industrial hubs.
Workers’ rights NGO China Labour Bulletin estimates there are about 277 million Chinese workers whose households are registered in rural areas of the country but who work in urban areas – equivalent to one third of the country’s entire workforce.
Since China’s restrictive hukou, or household registration, system means citizens can usually only access services like education in the place where they were born, many migrant workers leave their children behind with other family members. A government survey published in 2016 suggested there were 9.02 million “left-behind” children, aged 16 or under, in China’s countryside.
“In poor areas parents can often only afford to come back once a year, or even once every two years,” says Brise Lee, a manager at ICTI Care. “Their children have few chances to communicate with and stay with their parents. So the parents’ relationships with their children are weak.”
Workers the Guardian spoke to were positive about the impact of the scheme on their families. However, the interviewees were selected by the factories, and it is not possible to know how representative their views were.
Wang Yuanyuan, a 32-year-old worker from Hunan province, had already managed to move her 10-year-old son to Guangdong by the time the FFFS started. The scheme made it possible for her younger son to join them for the summer.
“We were so much closer than before [the FFFS],” she says. Although ICTI Care also offers migrant workers advice on how to better communicate with their children remotely, Wang was determined to bring her family together. “There are certain feelings that can’t be delivered by phone or messages,” she says.
While reuniting parents and children for summer holidays is a positive move, only comprehensive social reform can provide the long-term solution migrant worker families need, says Cara Wallis, an associate professor in communications at Texas A&M University with a focus on China’s rural-urban divide.
“There needs to be deep structural reforms regarding the hukou, more development of rural areas, and more equitable social resources – such as quality education for migrant children – for migrant workers and their families in China’s cities,” she says.
The Chinese government has started to reform the hukou system, and promises to ease life for migrant workers over the next five years. But Wallis says the changes made to date are failing to benefit those most in need: “Particularly in larger cities, the reforms privilege those who have more education and money, not the labour migrants whose children are left behind in the countryside.”
Meanwhile, workers like 41-year-old Lei Mei continue to believe that their employment does more good for their children than harm. “It’s a shame I can’t see them grow day by day,” says Lei, whose children participated in the FFFS pilot. “But my choice is for a better future for them. I sent them to private schools instead of public schools – I’m paying 20,000 yuan (£2,350) a year for it.”
- This article was amended on 10 March to correct the description of ICTI Care.
Additional reporting by Paula Jin. The names of the factory workers interviewed for this article have been changed.