Hard lessons for Beijing migrant worker children

BEIJING (Reuters) - For Yao Wenli, Beijing Mingyuan School’s dank classrooms are an improvement on the four previous schools she has been to since her parents left their home-town to look for better work.

“The surroundings here are much better and the playground is bigger,” the 11-year-old from China’s poor southern province of Jiangxi said breezily.

Mingyuan’s several hundred students are all like Yao, children of parents who have moved from their home villages to scrape a living in the Olympic host city.

Beijing’s 40 billion yuan facelift for the Games has drawn millions of migrant workers, many of whom have helped build showcase Olympic venues, subway lines and highways.

Their arrival has also sparked fears of slums developing on the city’s fringes, and a mounting social crisis as the city strains to house and provide health-care for their children.

Crumbling and starved of government funding, schools like Mingyuan, which lies 40 minutes away from the Forbidden City in a shabby northern suburb, take up part of the education shortfall.

“I want the government to support and help this migrant workers’ school through policy,” said Zhang Shujun, Mingyuan’s principal.

“We need the government to give us a grant to pay for the playground, sports equipment and repairs and to pay for better quality teachers and classrooms, we need government assistance,” said Zhang.

Zhang, a migrant worker himself, has been principal for two years at Mingyuan, where teachers earn about 800 yuan ($114) a month, placing them firmly at the bottom of local pay scales.

Zhang says about half of Mingyuan’s students are destined to end up in unskilled jobs like their parents. A quarter might have a chance of going to university.

“They are very naive and have very little access to the wider world... They don’t have the protection and support that the better off city children’s parents can give them. But they are far more independent than the city children,” Zhang said.


The children often have little choice but to adapt.

Students at Mingyuan sweep rubbish from class-rooms before the start of class, and play ping-pong in the school yard on a table with a net made from bricks. A rank odour of open sewers hangs thick over the grounds.

For Yao Wenli, whose parents sell computer parts to make ends meet, the only alternative to schools like Mingyuan is a 15-hour train-ride back to her home-town in Jiangxi.

China’s “hukou”, or decades-old residential permit system, restricts migrant workers from enjoying health and education benefits of other city-dwellers, even as local governments employ them as cheap labour.

The policy also means many migrant workers’ children will not finish school, as Chinese law dictates that final exams be sat in home towns.

Experts have warned the policy is fuelling the development of an urban underclass springing from millions of poorly educated, displaced children.

Like their parents, few children want to leave big cities for their home towns where incomes are low and work opportunities few, said Yin Yin Nwe, China representative for UNICEF, which runs support programmes for migrant workers’ children.

The legally grey existence, however, means constant dislocations and psychological pressure for the children of parents, who, conversely, are seeking better chances for them.

“They may have to move from city to city or from district to district within the city, and this still means changing schools if they want to be with their parents. It can be quite emotionally wearing for them,” Yin said.

Writing by Ian Ransom; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani