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Migrant workers who helped build modern China have little or no pensions and cannot retire

BEIJING (AP) — At 53, Guan Junling is too old to be hired in factories. But for migrant workers like her, not working is not an option.

For decades they have been coming from farming villages to find work in the cities. Toiling in sweatshops and building apartment complexes that they could never afford to live in, they played a crucial role in China’s transformation into an economic powerhouse.

As they grow older, first-generation migrant workers struggle to find jobs in a slowing economy. Many are financially strapped, so they have to keep looking.

“There is no such thing as a ‘pension’ or ‘pension’ for rural residents. You can only rely and work on yourself,” Guan said. “When can you stop working? It really only happens when you have to lie in bed and you can’t do anything.”

She now relies on housecleaning and works long hours to save some money in case of a health emergency. Migrant workers may receive subsidized health care where they live, but have little or no coverage elsewhere. If Guan has to go to the hospital in Beijing, she will have to pay for it out of her own pocket.

As China’s population ages, so do migrant workers. About 85 million were over 50 in 2022, the latest year for which data is available, representing 29% of all migrant workers, up from 15% a decade earlier. With limited or no pensions and health insurance, they have to continue working.

According to Qiu Fengxian, a scholar of rural sociology, Qiu Fengxian, a scholar of rural sociology, who described her research in a lecture last year in a questionnaire distributed to 2,500 first-generation migrant workers between 2018 and 2022 that they would work after the age of 60. The first generation refers to those born in the 1970s or earlier.

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Older workers are hit with a double whammy. Jobs have dried up in construction due to a downturn in the real estate market and in factories due to automation and the slowing economy. Age discrimination is common, meaning jobs often go to younger people.

“For young people, of course, you can still find a job, there are jobs available, even if the wages are not high enough,” said Zhang Chenggang of the Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing, where he heads a center that conducts research into new forms of employment. .

“But there are simply no vacancies for older migrant workers,” says Zhang, who conducted field studies in four labor markets in China late last year. “The problem is that no matter how low the pay is, as long as someone pays you will take the job.”

Some recruiters contacted by AP say older workers are not working well or have underlying illnesses. Others refused to answer and hung up.

Many choose temporary work. Late last year, Zhang Zixing was looking for performances on a cold winter day at a sprawling open-air labor market on the outskirts of Beijing.

He said he was fired because of his age about three years ago when he turned 55. In December, he earned 260 yuan (about $35) a day installing cables at construction sites.

Zhang Quanshou, a village official in Henan province and a delegate in China’s National People’s Congress, said some older migrant workers are simply looking for work near their hometowns, while others are still moving to bigger cities.

“Some older migrant workers find temporary jobs, so it is important to build the temporary labor market and provide a better platform for such services,” said Zhang, secretary of the village’s Communist Party, in an emailed response to questions at a recent meeting. annual meeting of Congress.

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Guan, who comes from a rice-growing region in the north, worked on the assembly line of a garment factory until she was laid off at the age of 40. She then worked various jobs in different cities, ending up in Beijing in 2018.

She works seven days a week, partly because she fears that employment agencies will stop calling if she turns down an offer.

During the New Year holidays in February, when migrant workers traditionally go home to visit their families, she stayed in Beijing as a caregiver for an elderly woman because the woman needed help and she needed the money.

“People want someone who is highly educated or young, and I don’t meet either requirement,” says Guan, who dropped out after high school because her parents only had enough money to educate their son. “But then I think that no matter how other people look at me, I have to survive.”

Guan worries that it will be even harder to find a job when she turns 55. The retirement age for women in China is 50 or 55, depending on the company and type of work. For men this is 60.

Lu Guoquan, a union official, has proposed relaxing age limits for jobs, assessing workers on their physical condition rather than their age, and making it easier for older people to find work through labor markets and online platforms.

“A large number of farmers have entered the cities and have made an important contribution to the modernization of our country,” said his proposal, made to an advisory body at the recent national congress and seen by the AP.

As workers grow older, “they gradually become a relatively vulnerable group in the labor market and face a number of barriers and difficulties to continue working,” the report said.

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Lu, director of the general office of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, declined an interview request.

Duan Shuangzhu has collected waste in a Beijing neighborhood for 25 years after giving up his life as a sheep and cow farmer in northern China’s Shanxi province at the age of 40. He gets up at 3:30 am seven days a week to do his rounds. For that, he earns 3,300 yuan ($460) a month and has a basement room to live in.

Duan’s wife remained on the farm, caring for their grandchildren. Duan has managed to save money for himself, his children and his grandchildren, but he has never paid into a pension system, so he has spent what little he earns on his family.

This fits in with the pattern that Qiu discovered in her research, which she published in a book last year. Older migrant workers moved to the cities to improve the lives of their children and other family members, not themselves, she discovered. Most have little or no savings, and few have climbed the economic ladder. They hoped their children would do so, but most also ended up as migrant workers.

Most of migrant workers’ earnings were spent on their children’s marriages, homes and education, Qiu said in her speech. “Basically, it wasn’t until age 55 that they started working for themselves and planning for their own late years.”

Duan, at 68, has no plans to retire.

“As long as I can work every day, that’s enough to survive,” he said, standing next to a number of community trash cans, color-coded for recycling. “I didn’t grow up in a rich family – I just filled my bins. stomach every day is enough for me.”

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Associated Press researcher Wanqing Chen contributed to this story.

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