Social workers supporting migrant workers

Wu Zhikui is responsible for child services for the Facilitators’ Zhuhai Office.

The reading room in a workers’ dormitory area in a suburb of Zhuhai in Southern China is full of children’s books. Children sit at a couple of the tables reading, another group of smaller children are playing a board game. It is a quiet morning.

The centre is a meeting point for migrant workers in the area. Migrant workers often feel isolated in their dormitories working far from home and family. Many workers who are parents have left their child or children in their home village, often in the care of grandparents. Concern for the wellbeing of children is a big part of why many workers are worried.

“Companies should give parent workers the opportunity to learn how to interact with their children better. Help with ways to communicate with his or her children from a distance,” Yang Daimao says. She is the head of the centre in Zhuhai.

Yang Daimao and the non-governmental organisation The Facilitators worked with CCR CSR on a report on migrant workers that are parents a few years back and she believes there is room for companies to improve a great deal when it comes to supporting parent workers and their children.

“When we did the report we found that at least in the companies we interviewed, the management did not know how many of their workers were married, whether or not they had children and where they were. To us that means that the human resources departments don’t see a worker as whole person who needs family life. So I think there are many things we can do to improve the situation together.”

In China over 61 million children are left behind when their parents move to other parts of the country to look for work. The long-term impact for both children and parents is well documented, but family issues are seldom taken into account by companies when they try to improve worker retention, production quality and profit margins.

Migrant workers have very limited access to education, health-care and social services where they work due to China’s social registration system. As a result, as few as 34 million out of 262 million workers brought their families with them.  

The report Yang Daimao worked on together with CCR CSR in 2013 showed that 80% of parents with children left behind in their home town or village felt inadequate as parents and worry about their children was listed as causing frequent errors in almost 40% of the over 1,500 migrant workers that were part of the study. Leaving your children behind with relatives or other care takers is a major concern, not just for the parents, but for the companies that hire them.

“When we are looking for companies to partner with now, we want to find someone who is interested so that we can integrate with the CSR of the company. So the two parties can establish stable cooperation relationship. One of the possible ways to do it is to establish a service centre in community where the factory or the production site is, which is also were the workers live.”

 The Facilitators receive support from the Government's Purchase Public Service (GPPS), institutional donations for specific projects and from individual and group donations.

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Wu Zhikui is responsible for child services for the Facilitators’ Zhuhai Office. She used to be a factory worker and knows all to well how it feels to be a young migrant worker in Southern China.

“I left home to work after I graduated from high school. I worked in Shenzhen for two years and then here in Zhuhai as a frontline worker on the assembly line. At that time, my work and my life were dull.”

Zhikui felt like a misfit in Zhuhai. She didn’t know any of her colleagues and it was difficult to make friends outside of work. She didn’t like to go to the internet bars or the skating places like her colleagues did, so a lot of the time she stayed in the dormitory after work.

“I actually stayed in the dormitory opposite to where we sit now in the Facilitators’ reading room. At that time, I was working for Flextronics. One of my colleagues lived here and he told me that I could come here to read books. And I like reading. So I got to know the Facilitators because of reading.”

“I started coming here in 2009 and gradually participated in volunteer service. I got to know other volunteers here and had more friends. By socializing with others. If we had problems, we could talk about it together.”

Zhikui’s situation of isolation is something many migrant workers experience. Being away from home and long working hours and the fact that services in society are not open to migrants means the factory dormitory life becomes a very isolated one.

Later Zhikui took part in a programme that trained workers in professional social work skills. The one-year programme was a crash course in social work and hard for Zhikui who worked 11 hour shifts at the factory.

“I realised that work is only a part of my life. There are other things I can do, like caring about people around me, about their life. I know there are many things I can do, even if I just start with small things.”

There is a steady stream of children and parents coming to the reading room. Things are very tidy and the children help putting books in order when they are finished which is part of teaching them good habits. Factory work means that there is often little time for parents to spend with their children.

“Many of the children who come here, their parents need to work overtime. So when the children finish school the parents don’t have time to help with their homework, or spend time with them even on weekends. Many of the parents are factory workers.”

“Like the little boy who came here just now, Zhikui says. He often tells his mother after she returns home from work: ‘Mom, when can you spend some time to play with me?’ His mother comes home late because of work and feels tired, has no energy to play with him any more.”

Zhikui says that many parents she speaks to consider moving closer to the dormitory complex where the reading room is so they more easily can come by themselves to participate in activities.

“One activity we organise is for parents to tell stories to their children. Some parents did not know they could do these things with children.”