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Environment and Health Issues facing Migrant Workers in Shenzhen - Niu Jianlin (2009)

Niu Jianlin, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (Small Grant 2009)
This project examined the environment and health issues associated with large scale rural urban migration to Shenzhen. As China’s first special economic zone, the experiences of Shenzhen offer important insights for later-urbanization areas. The project was a collaboration between the Institute of Population and Labor Economics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Shenzhen Health, Population and Family Planning Commission.
The project reviewed the history of migration to Shenzhen and the shift in policy responses from the 1980s to the present, tracing the change from a policy of control to one of migration management and the provision of public services. Through a survey in three districts of Shenzhen, the team collected data on socio-demographic status, physical/psychological health status, health knowledge and behaviors, health care access and needs and related barriers, neighborhood environment, and living & working conditions, annual income, and occupation. Survey data was supplemented by focus groups with migrants and social service workers.
The team found that, as a self selected and young population, labor migrants are relatively healthy. The most common chronic conditions they reported are anemia and gastrointestinal diseases, and other health problems included insomnia, neck/shoulder or back pain, eye pressure, dermatitis and memory impairment. Despite their relatively good physical health, migrants experienced some psychological problems or pressures, such as anxiety, loneliness, nervousness and depression. Only half or fewer of the respondents felt confident or capable to deal with personal matters and troubles.
As expected, environmental factors in migrants’ living and working conditions affected their health. Those living in non-standard storied buildings reported poorer health, as did migrants working in unfavorable/extreme working conditions. Working for extended hours regularly also had detrimental effects on migrants’ health.  On the contrary, a good neighborhood environment with more amenities had a positive effect.
Net of other effects, living with spouse or partner, and having good social support both contribute positively to migrants’ health. Similarly, personal health behaviors and life styles showed significant effects on migrants’ health. For instance, doing physical exercise on a regular basis contributed significantly to good health. And healthy eating, such as having breakfast regularly and not eating expired food, also had significant impacts on migrants’ health.
In addition to the individuals’ health-related behaviors and social support, other important factors shape/affect the environment-health relationship in Shenzhen. These include health care services, insurance and other welfare policies, and the overall social and economic developmental strategy in the host city.  The study found that most of the labor migrants in Shenzhen work intensively (56 hours a week) on a regular basis, have limited medical insurance on average, and face great uncertainty regarding their life and employment. High medical costs effectively prevent them from using health care services when needed.
It is evident that at policy level, some of the regulations have not been executed
properly. For instance, the labor law states that the weekly working hours should not exceed 40 or 44 hours in enterprises, and the overtime working hoursshould not exceed 36 hours monthly.  But this is not implemented. In order to earn a decent income and keep their job, many migrants have to work every day and work over time.
There are other deficiencies in existing policies and regulations regarding insurance and other welfare provisions. For instance, we found that the current regulations on pension plans require both migrants and their employers to pay into the system for 15 consecutive years. However, in the event of the enterprise breakup, employees lose their contribution even if they have paid for 13 or 14 years.
Nevertheless, as a Special Economic Zone, Shenzhen has been taking the lead in developing/reforming policies to improve the environment and welfare of workers (including labor migrants). For instance, Shenzhen published its detailed regulations on stand-down in extreme weathers as early as in 2005.
In addition, the geographic location is also relevant in the broad environment-health relationship. Located to the north of Hong Kong, Shenzhen supplies more than 90% of the fresh water used in Hong Kong. As a result, industry in Shenzhen is subject to strict pollution regulation. Domestic sewage disposal is also standardized even in the non-standard storied buildings and tap water is accessible in almost all buildings. This has contributed to the city’s overall environment, and is beneficial to migrants’ health.
For more information about this study, contact Niu Jianlin at
The report is available here:

Environment and Health Issues facing Migrant Workers in Shenzhen