BEIJING (Reuters) - More migrant workers deserted China's coastal regions last year, as lower living costs and proximity to home trumped higher wages, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security said.
Data published on Thursday found the number of migrants working in China's eastern coastal region decreased by 0.2 percent in 2013, compared with a 9.4 percent increase in central China.
"Lower costs of living and a closer proximity to home and family mean that the attractiveness of these regions will only increase," said Yang Zhiming, the ministry's vice head.
The move inland by workers mirrors the relocation among factories to western China to take advantage of lower costs. For instance, Foxconn Technology Group, the world's largest contract electronics maker, moved its main operations to inland provinces such as Henan and Shanxi.
Wages in the rest of the country are still roughly 10 percent lower than the eastern provinces bordering China's coast, which currently host more than 60 percent of the country's migrants.
China's cheap hubs for low-skill export manufacturing along the Southern Pearl River Delta and the area around Shanghai were one of the main drivers of the country's breakneck growth over the past three decades.
But in recent years, the country has sought to focus on higher-end manufacturing as its "demographic dividend", or the advantage that China enjoys with its vast reserves of young and low-cost labor, begins to run out.
Overall, China's rural work force rose by 2.4 percent last year to 269 million, slowing on the previous two years which saw 3.9 percent and 4.4 percent growth respectively.
"The quality of the work China's migrant workers are doing still needs to improve" said Yang, adding that lack of skills was currently the "biggest impediment to migrants gaining employment in emerging industries."
China's rigid residence restriction, or hukou, system also bars migrants from settling in the east, where many of the country's largest cities are located.
Under the current system residents are only entitled to a range of social services in their home town -- effectively shutting migrants out of these services when they move cities.
The Communist Party promised to ease residence restrictions on all but the largest cities last November and to completely abolish controls in the smallest cities and towns, but officials did not give a date for when this would take place, saying the reform was still under discussion.
Meanwhile, some progress has been made towards granting migrants equal access to education, though Du Kewei, the deputy head of the Ministry of Education's elementary education department, said the government had only "broken the ice" on the contentious issue of allowing migrant children to sit the college entrance exam in the city where they live.
Editing by Guiqing Koh and Eric Meijer