For China’s Migrant Workers, Retirement Often Brings More Work
SHANGHAI — “Retirement?” Upon hearing the word, Xia Zengming laughs. “This concept doesn’t exist in my hometown.”
The 66-year-old works as an interior decorator in Shanghai. It’s a physically demanding job: He typically works over 12 hours a day, shifting heavy ceramic tiles and wooden panels around dusty, unfinished apartments.
To save money and time, Xia lives inside the homes that he’s decorating. Once he’s finished a day’s work, he often lies down and sleeps right on the floor.
Xia knows he won’t be able to keep up this intense style of work much longer. But he plans to carry on for as long as he can. He feels he has no other choice.
Millions of Chinese migrant workers find themselves in the same situation. For decades, their labor has been the driving force of China’s economy. Yet as they reach old age, few are able to enjoy a comfortable retirement.
In China’s major cities, registered workers are able to retire by 60 and claim a decent pension. Retirees in Shanghai receive a minimum of 4,000 yuan ($575) a month, and many receive up to 10,000 yuan.
Migrant laborers, however, are often shut out of that system. Because they are officially classified as part of the rural population, they are only entitled to the meager social security payments provided in their hometowns. These are rarely even close to being enough to live on.
The result is a gaping rural-urban divide. Nationwide, around 40% of Chinese seniors intend to carry on working after reaching the official retirement age, according to a 2019 study led by Peking University. But in rural areas the rate is far higher: Nearly 80% of men aged 60-64 are employed, and even among over-80s the employment rate is as high as 20%.
For China, this trend has proved useful. As its population ages and young people increasingly shy away from blue-collar work, elderly migrant laborers have become ever more essential to the economy. Nearly half of the country’s blue-collar workforce is now aged over 40.
In Xia’s industry, the trend is even more extreme. Over 97% of China’s interior decorators are from rural areas, and the majority are middle-aged or elderly, according to a 2021 report. People born in the 1960s make up the largest age group.
For now, aging migrants like Xia are acting as a band-aid for the economy — masking the full extent of a growing labor shortage. But eventually, they will have to stop working. And when they do, the next generation is unlikely to accept the poor labor conditions they’ve endured for so long.
The elderly workers who spoke with Sixth Tone cited various advantages to carrying on working: from making full use of their skills, to staying physically and socially active. But in reality, most ultimately choose to do so out of financial necessity, according to Song Yueping, a professor at Renmin University of China’s School of Sociology and Population Studies.
“Those who are most willing to stay in the job market have relatively low incomes and are less educated — they continue working to make money, not for a sense of accomplishment,” says Song. “Most of those who are better educated and have stable jobs are unwilling to delay their retirement.”
In Xia’s home village — located around 250 kilometers north of Shanghai — the idea of retiring never occurs to most locals, Xia says. The majority of people work as interior decorators in Shanghai, just like him. Those who are too old stay in the village and work in the fields.
“How can we afford to dream about retiring?” says Xia’s wife, Hou, who is 65 and often works alongside Xia during decoration jobs. “You won’t have a leisurely life if you don’t have enough money.”
Xia has been decorating homes in Shanghai for nearly three decades. He’s a man of many trades: a skilled carpenter, bricklayer, electrician, and plumber. He speaks with Sixth Tone inside an under-renovation apartment in Pudong New District, while he assembles a kitchen cabinet and his wife grouts tiles in the bathroom.
Over the years, Xia has worked for a variety of contractors and small business owners, but he has always done so as a freelancer. In his industry, few employers are willing to hire migrant workers on formal contracts, he says.
“It’s hard to get a full-time job for people like me,” says Xia, driving a nail into the cabinet. “The labor costs are too high for the companies — they’re unwilling to pay pension allowances, health insurance, and other benefits to us.”
Because of this, Xia and Hou were unable to build up their pensions. Xia used to pay 300 yuan a month for social security, while his wife paid around double. But that only entitles them to a paltry 300 yuan per month in pension payments.
“A combined pension of 300 yuan means nothing for the family,” Xia says. “It’s not enough to cover your daily expenses like utility bills and food.”
For now, the couple are still working at a frenetic pace. They are currently living in the three-bedroom apartment they’re redecorating; Xia has built a makeshift bed from spare wood near a south-facing window to sleep on.
Each morning, Xia gets up at 6 a.m. and starts work by 7. He normally works up to 13 hours and goes to sleep at 9 p.m.
“Sometimes, if there’s no material, we just sleep on the floor,” Xia says. “If you’re exhausted enough, you fall asleep the minute you lie down and close your eyes. I can fall asleep easily no matter where I go.”
Business has never been so good, according to the couple. They are now earning nearly 20,000 yuan per month, and Xia has a long list of future decoration jobs waiting for him.
But it’s a risky trade. In the past, Xia says he was cheated several times. “I’d finish the job and the bosses would just disappear,” he says. That’s rare now that everyone is connected via WeChat, a Chinese social app. Yet Xia still worries about getting injured on the job.
“This job involves the risk of work-related injuries, so I’ve always been very cautious during work,” he says. “I try to stay safe and not get into disputes — let alone physical conflicts — with neighbors, which are common because home decoration creates lots of noise and dust.”
For migrant workers, a serious injury can be devastating. In a number of blue-collar industries, companies often avoid hiring workers on formal contracts and fail to provide proper workplace insurance.
Song has researched the construction and security industries in China, where large numbers of elderly migrants are employed. In both professions, she found a similar pattern of informal employment practices.
“Many employers found these workers through agencies or contractors to avoid risks,” she says. “These are important sectors that hire seniors. It’s hard for them to get formal employment status.”
The problem is even worse for elderly migrants, Song says. In many cases, companies are unable to provide older staff with insurance — even if they want to.
“Companies cannot purchase work-related injury insurance for this group, because people over the retirement age are ineligible for this insurance,” says Song. “But work-related injuries are major potential risks in these sectors.”
These tough working conditions are one reason why elderly migrants face so little competition from younger workers.
At 71, Chen Fagen is still working full time as a decorator. Like Xia, he is from Jiangsu province but spends most of his time working at apartment blocks in Shanghai — usually with his wife working alongside him.
“We don’t have a son,” says Chen. “We have to count on ourselves.”
Chen doesn’t speak fluent Mandarin, and he’s no longer able to work at full pace. He finds tiling especially draining these days: The ceramic tiles weigh up to 20 kilograms, and Chen first has to dip each one in water before setting it on the wall.
“I have a nap at midday for around two hours,” Chen says. “Otherwise, it’s hard to continue working in the afternoon.”
But Chen doesn’t have to worry about finding clients. There is a dire shortage of skilled tradespeople like him in Shanghai.
“No young men are willing to learn these skills and take up this job — it’s too physically demanding,” Chen says.
As early as 2012, Chinese media began reporting on a growing shortage of blue-collar labor in the country. The problem has grown over the past decade. In a 2022 industry survey, 83% of manufacturing firms said they faced labor shortages: 42% said it was a seasonal issue, while 32% said it was a year-round problem.
The willingness of migrants to continue working far beyond the official retirement age has helped alleviate the labor shortage to a certain extent, Song says. But they can’t keep going forever.
“You have to admit that people’s health conditions get worse as they age,” says Song. “Another important point is that most businesses are unwilling to offer training to people approaching the retirement age, let alone those who have passed it … That means they won’t be able to cope with their jobs.”
For now, Chen says he has no plans to retire. He’s earning a decent living of 12,000-15,000 yuan a month, and he needs to keep building up his savings — like Xia, he doesn’t have a proper pension.
“Spending my retirement life playing mahjong or poker, going on trips, or simply staying at home and watching TV is a luxury I never dared to imagine,” says Chen.
Xia, meanwhile, hopes that his earnings can help provide a better future for his grandchildren. His son followed him into the decoration business after finishing middle school. Now in his early 40s, he’s considered a relative youngster in the industry.
“I did poorly at school,” the son told Sixth Tone. “I needed a job to support my life.”
But Xia is determined that his son’s children will avoid the same fate. He has used all his savings to support his son’s family, helping them buy a two-bedroom apartment in his home county. Xia’s two grandchildren are now in good schools, and he hopes they’ll find white-collar jobs one day.
“I hope they can have office jobs, sitting in front of a computer,” he says. “They won’t need to endure the hardship we’ve experienced.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: A worker at a construction site in Hai’an, Jiangsu province, 2006. VCG)