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‘Peasant’ IT workers are changing the social perception of Chinese migrant workers

Written by Jiaxing Li Published on     3 mins read

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Migrants who relocate from rural areas to seek employment in urban areas are now more likely to have stronger educational backgrounds.

More rural migrant workers in China are now working in the information technology and software industry, according to a report released by the Chinese government on Monday.

Statistics compiled by the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics show that 7.9% of rural migrant workers in Beijing now work in the software and information technology industries. This is a significant rise from the 4.2% mark recorded in 2020. However, the bureau’s researchers did not specify what roles migrant workers now occupy within the IT sector.

The report also pointed out that today’s migrant workers generally have stronger educational backgrounds than previous generations, with 20% being college graduates and 1.2% holding master’s degrees. This category of migrant workers refers to people who are aged 16 and above, and hold rural household registration while they reside and work in major cities, according to the report.

The household registration system, or hukou, categorizes every Chinese citizen as hailing from an agricultural (rural) or non-agricultural (urban) background. It guarantees people different rights based on their classification and geographical roots, affecting their opportunities and access to education, healthcare, and employment.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV quoted one netizen in a short post on its website: “Now we know our place [in society]. We’re ‘coder peasants!’”

The rural migrant label carries a negative connotation in some social circles. The term is literally “peasant” in Chinese, and is often used to describe people who hail from rural areas and seek work involving manual labor in cities.

Despite the government’s recognition of their contributions in high-skilled positions, migrant workers in the tech sector recognize that they face grueling conditions. One popular commentator on Zhihu, which functions like Quora, wrote, “Migrant workers did labor work in the past, now we work at internet companies from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., six days a week. We struggle physically and mentally, so it’s actually more tiring than migrant workers who came before us.”

Despite a multi-pronged regulatory crackdown, China’s internet industry is one of the most robust sectors in the country. Major tech companies hiked their demand for new recruits in 2020: 66% by ByteDance, 65% by Alibaba, 33% by Tencent, 31% by Meituan, and 17% by Didi, according to 36Kr.

The “China Mobile Internet Development Report (2021)” shows the industry creates plenty of gig work too, and about 200 million people are earning a living from this type of work. For example, drivers are hired on a non-permanent basis for ride-hailing and delivery services, shoring up employment opportunities across the country.

Taobao Live, the livestream arm of Taobao, generated 17 million jobs in 2020, according to the report. ByteDance kicked off its largest on-campus recruitment drive ever to fill 8,000 positions between September 2021 and August 2022. 

But 996 work arrangements—12-hour workdays, six days a week, with little or no overtime pay—that is rampant in internet companies, as well as the absence of proper protection for gig workers, has triggered criticisms in state media. Some changes are being implemented, like new rules that were put in place in July to protect the welfare of food delivery drivers.

Read this: China’s edtech firms downsize and tutors flee as crackdown intensifies

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