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Migrant worker Zhang Kang has a full-time job at an auto factory in this southern Chinese city岸and a drive to sell socks.|
Mr. Zhang, an employee at a BYD Co. assembly plant, sells socks on his off hours to its thousands of employees, as well as to anyone else who wants them. 'Socks are simple, and everyone needs them' says Mr. Zhang, who made a 60,000 yuan ($9,600) investment to jump-start the business.
After five years in Shenzhen, he has no plans for a quick return to his old home, the city of Nanyang, around 900 miles away in central Henan province. 'It's not developed enough' for the sock trade, he says.
Lingering migrant workers like Mr. Zhang are an encouraging sign for the world's No. 2 economy. For more than a decade, China has relied on an army of low-wage migrant workers岸252 million in 2011, according to government statistics岸who travel largely from rural areas to man its production lines and construction sites.
China has long forbidden such workers from putting down roots under a system of household registration, known as the hukou, developed to keep the rural poor from swamping the cities. Without a city hukou, migrant workers are forbidden from tapping local social benefits and have difficulty sending their children to local schools岸with the result that many leave their offspring in the care of grandparents back home.
Economists and a rising number of Chinese policy makers say the hukou system gets in the way of turning migrant workers into a more stable, productive work force that could also further China's goal of rebalancing its economy toward more consumer-driven growth. The hukou system contributes to a shortage of workers in cities as it encourages migrants to return to the village when it comes time to raise a family.
Vice Premier Li Keqiang岸widely expected to succeed Premier Wen Jiabao as China's top economic policy official early next year岸said in a statement posted on a government website last week that China 'must take migrant rural workers and gradually change them into urban residents. This requires that we push forward household registration reform.' The statement didn't offer additional details.
A new survey suggests conditions for migrants in the city are slowly improving. The survey of 5,000 migrant households by Xin Meng, an economics professor at Australian National University, found their average length of time away from home since first migration has risen to almost nine years in 2012 from 7.8 years in 2008. Should that number increase by a lot in coming years, Ms. Meng writes, any concern about the supply of migrant workers drying up 'should disappear.'
The hope for the government is that migrants staying longer in the cities岸 gaining better benefits and improving their skills岸will expand the size and improve the quality of the urban work force. That process also feeds into China's need to shift its economy toward consumption: Workers with a better cushion don't need to put away as much of their income.
'If China wants to raise households spending, it makes no sense to have a third of the urban population excluded from the welfare system and forced into higher saving,' said Tom Miller, an analyst at GK Dragonomics and author of a book on China's changing cities called 'China's Urban Billion.'
Stability of the migrant work force is a major issue for leaders eager to both avoid unrest and keep factories humming. In the wake of the financial crisis, when demand for China's exports drastically slowed, an estimated 23 million migrants lost their jobs, and many of those workers returned to the countryside. As the economy recovered, companies and local governments raised wages and offered some benefits to lure them back, denting China's export competitiveness. In 2011, manufacturing wages in China rose close to 20% compared with 2010, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
Higher wages and better benefits have contributed to migrants' longer tenure in major cities, suggesting reform of the hukou system could attract still more. Ms. Meng's survey found that the proportion of migrant workers with unemployment insurance increased from 11% in 2008 to 21% in 2012, with similar increases in the percentage with health, pensions and work-injury insurance.
Mr. Zhang isn't the only BYD migrant worker in Shenzhen looking beyond the factory gates to a future in the city. Another, who gave his surname as Ling, quit his work on the factory floor several years ago to open a flower store. That venture failed, but he stayed in Shenzhen and returned to BYD. He hopes his wife will come and join him from their hometown of Shantou, in Guangdong province. 'Shenzhen has better factories and you get used to the life,' he said.
Another migrant, surnamed Ma, works at factory owned by Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., also known as Foxconn, a maker of Apple Inc. iPhones and other electronics products. At night he and a friend attend a nearby school where they study business management and electronic engineering skills they hope will help them get better jobs with higher wages.
However, without an urban hukou, even with some of the improved benefits, even long-term migrants remain excluded from the mainstream of urban opportunities.
Mr. Ling said if he could, he would like to stay in Shenzhen, but between limits on overtime work at BYD's factory, difficulty finding housing he can afford and the challenges he would face raising a family in the city he admits he might simply have to return home and take a lower-paying job in Shantou.