Migrant Workers' Children Face Barriers to Education, Activists Call for Fair Treatment

March 8, 2010

China's household registration system places strict limits on where its citizens may legally reside. Given that access to social services is tied to household registration, some migrant workers' children face discrimination and are turned away from urban schools. In light of this, two Beijing-based activists have asked the city's authorities to allocate more money to increase the number of state-run kindergartens in order to accommodate the children of migrant workers who, already facing discrimination in an environment where slots are severely limited, often are denied admission to schools. Some migrant children end up in unlicensed kindergartens that may lack proper oversight. Recent articles and studies have highlighted migrants' difficulties in obtaining equal access to schools for their children, and the factors that discourage many urban state-run schools from accepting migrant children.

China's hukou (household registration) system imposes strict limits on Chinese citizens' ability to choose their permanent places of residence (see the Congressional-Executive Commission on China's topic paper on the hukou system). Migrant workers and their children who do not hold urban hukou registrations face institutional discrimination in school admissions, since access to social services is linked to hukou registrations. Chinese Human Rights Defenders noted in a February 24 report that over ten thousand migrant students were unable to resume classes after the Chinese New Year's holiday in some districts within Beijing as dozens of schools faced forced demolitions. In response, an unnamed Chaoyang District official reportedly told Kyodo News on January 29 that, since the migrant schools were not legally registered, the government would not assist in relocating the migrant students. Against this backdrop, in late January, Hu Xingdou, a professor at Beijing Institute of Technology, and Li Fangping, a human rights lawyer, submitted their motion to the Beijing People's Congress asking the city government to appropriate more funds to increase the number of state-run kindergartens in order to provide better access to schooling for migrant children, according to a February 2 China Labor Bulletin (CLB) report. The same CLB report also indicates that, as of the publication date, municipal officials have not responded to the activists' calls.

The fact that migrant workers do not hold urban hukou registrations means that their children are more likely to be turned away from city schools. As such, some migrant parents send their children to unregistered schools that may lack adequate oversight. In January 2010, a fire at an unregistered kindergarten in Beijing's Chaoyang District killed a two-and-a-half year old girl. A January 19 China Daily article points out that, in response to the fire, a Chaoyang District education official called for a comprehensive inspection of all kindergartens in the district, and insisted that private kindergartens are regularly checked. But when a reporter asked who should be held responsible for the incident, a Chaoyang District Party Committee official placed the blame on the kindergarten's owners, but also told the China Daily that it was "high time for [the parents] to consider the safety of their children and not just worry about money." Another official, cited in the Kyodo News article and speaking more broadly about migrant children's education in Beijing, encouraged parents to "send their children back to their hometowns, because there, education is free and the quality of education is high." Many rural schools, however, reportedly continue to collect fees and the quality of education in many cases reportedly is poor, as detailed in a September 2007 CLB study: Small Hands, A Survey Report on Child Labor in China.

In Beijing, demand for kindergarten is high, and if no action is taken to accommodate more students, the number of students will continue to outpace available school slots in coming years. Between 2006 and mid-2009, more than 460,000 babies were born in Beijing, and about 51 percent of them did not hold Beijing household registration, according to a June 30, 2009, Xinhua report. As Li Fangping told Radio Free Asia (RFA) in a January 29, 2010, article, the birthrate of migrant children in Beijing had already exceeded the city-wide children population by 50 percent. Of the city's migrant children population, RFA notes that about 200,000 are in the pre-school age range. Still, according to the June 30 Xinhua piece and the February 2 CLB report, as it stands, there are 1,266 legally registered kindergartens in Beijing, of which over 300 are state-run, and an additional 1,298 "self-organized kindergartens" not registered with the government; the legal ones―both state-run and private―only can accommodate half of the admissions demand. A Beijing Municipal Political Consultative Conference study cited in the RFA article indicates that 90 percent of parents prefer to enroll their children in the state-run schools, since these institutions are cheaper and have a lower turnover of teachers.

Other cities face similar challenges: research data from the CLB's in-depth report on migrant children indicates that Henan Province experienced 25-percent increases in its migrant children population annually between 2000 and 2006, and together with Guangdong, Anhui, and Sichuan provinces, these areas have the highest concentrations of migrant children in China.

For more information on the conditions of migrant workers in China, see Section II―Worker Rights in the CECC 2009 Annual Report.