Supply chain solutions to China’s left-behind children problem

Mark Robertson, Senior Vice President, Communications & Stakeholder Relations, ICTI Ethical Toy Program

Áine McCarthy, Assistant Manager, Marketing & Communications, ICTI Ethical Toy Program

On United Nations Universal Children’s Day, ICTI Ethical Toy Program reports on how it is supporting workers with left-behind children.

Domestic migrant workers make up a substantial percentage of the workforce in China's manufacturing industry. Latest figures estimate that there are 247 million migrant workers in the country. These workers often originate from towns and villages hundreds or thousands of miles away from the factories where they work.

The majority of these workers are parents, and due to childcare needs and the Hukou system – a household register that has tied people's access to social services to their hometowns, making it difficult for millions of domestic migrant workers to take their children with them. Many are forced to leave their children behind when they move to cities in search of work.

Gradual reforms to China’s Hukou system are underway, but an estimated 62 million children are separated from their parents, staying behind in rural communities in China. The frequency of reunions between children and their parents is depressingly low; the most fortunate are the 30 percent of children who see their parents on an annual basis when they come home to visit them. The remainder go even longer between meetings.

This separation puts a significant strain on relationships, parent well-being, and children’s development. Those who have to care for left-behind children, commonly grandparents, may not have the physical ability, financial means, or knowledge required to raise left-behind children adequately. Studies have shown that left-behind children have increased vulnerability to becoming a victim of human trafficking, suffer a much higher likelihood of being involved in criminality, and suffer a higher rate of depression than other children.

Piloting Family-Friendly Spaces at toy factories in China

As the world’s leading ethical supply chain program for the toy industry, ICTI Ethical Toy Program’s focus is enhancing the well-being of workers at toy factories. For many parent workers at toy factories in China, a key challenge they face is finding time to be with their children.

This summer, ICTI Ethical Toy Program ran pilot projects to create Family-Friendly Spaces (FFS) at two toy factories in China: Yuanli Toy in Heyuan and Best Top in Qingyuan. Developed in partnership with the Center for Child Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility (CCR CSR), the project aims to reunite migrant workers with their left-behind children during the summer months. FFS creates a safe space to learn and play while their parents work.

Selected staff at each toy factory were trained in the implementation and safe management of the FFS. Suitable spaces on-site, away from the factory floor were identified, and transformed into safe, secure and colourful spaces for children, at which the staff ran fun and educational activities for children including singing, dancing, drawing, games, homework hour and movie hour.

In total, 97 parent workers attended the initial FFS pilots, benefiting 85 children. The positive impacts on workers and their children were plain to see as CCR CSR reported.

Ms. Huang (pseudonym), 32, is a toy worker from Zhanjiang. She has a six-year-old daughter who lives with her grandmother back in her hometown, a ten-hour train ride away. Work pressures, coupled with the fact that her husband also works full time, has meant that neither parent has time to care for their daughter.

Although the situation is not uncommon, Ms. Huang feels the repercussions of her departure every time she speaks to her child: "I'm not so close to my daughter because I never raised her. She doesn't talk much during phone calls and doesn't tell me about any problems she has," she confides.

Ms. Huang goes back to see her daughter 2-3 times a year and calls her about ten times a month. Despite her efforts to maintain a close relationship with her daughter, she's all too aware of the emotional distance between them. Her mother-in-law often throws even more salt into an already aching wound by accusing her of being a bad parent. 

But that changed this summer when Ms. Huang received a letter telling her about the FFS that was opening up in the toy factory where she works during the school break. The concept was unfamiliar to her and her biggest concern was safety. But when she learned her daughter could stay in the factory during the entire summer vacation and be looked after by trained teachers in a safe space, she quickly signed up. 

Since her daughter came to the FFS, Ms. Huang reports a significant transformation. No longer closed off and reserved, her child now happily talks to her and shares details of her every day life.

In the initial FFS pilots, each toy factory developed a day care centre and hired professional teachers to care for and educate the children during the working day at no cost to their parents. The children who attended the FFS benefitted from not only being reunited with their parents, but also from making new friends and learning new skills.

Mr. Zhang Quan, another parent participating in the FFS, reported: “I’m very relaxed that my daughter is looked after by them. She likes singing and dancing. When she first came, the teachers said my daughter was the most timid girl. Now after a couple of weeks, she would even greet people she never met before. When she comes home, she would sing and dance to us. She’s learned a lot and learns very fast. I’m very satisfied with her progress.”

Business benefits for toy factories

In addition to delivering positive impact for migrant workers and their children, an evaluation study and surveys conducted at both factories shows that the FFS pilots have delivered important business benefits for the toy factories that participated.  

Whilst initially raising concerns on liability and safety, factory management have been quick to see the positive potential of the project, and worked to address the challenges coming with setting up each pilot. At both factories, CCR CSR reported that management appeared motivated by genuine concern for the wellbeing of children and by the opportunity to show their support to workers, which in turn helped to build trust and increase worker satisfaction.

Each toy factory reported significant improvements in retention rates amongst workers that participated in the FFS, as well as improved employee-management trust/confidence: “This is the first time the factory provided professional teachers, lunch and snacks to workers’ children. The workers didn’t believe it at the beginning. Now they trust us more... I feel now that my relationship with the workers transcends a work level and we feel more like a family, which is very good way for me to communicate with and retain our workers,” the general manager of one factory commented.

"When workers are happy, we are happy, too. When they are grumpy, they either make trouble for you or pick fights from time to time…Now we can sleep better at night," echoed another manager.

General managers at both factories said they will continue the Family-Friendly Spaces in the future and will commit resources and capacity to do so. 

Remote Parenting Workshops for migrant workers

Beyond the FFS pilots, the second phase of ICTI Ethical Toy Program’s work to support migrant workers at toy factories with left-behind children is focussed on Remote Parenting Workshops. Delivered in partnership with CCR CSR at 10 toy factories, these ‘Parents at work: Distance without Separation ’ workshops aims to provide workers with support mechanisms and tools necessary for improving and maintaining relationships between migrant workers and their children.

The training program is made up of three parts, the first of which is intended to help parents come to terms with the separation from their child and become empowered to more constructively handle problems and conflict. The second will help parents to understand the emotional and physical needs of their child at various stages of development, so that they can respond to their needs and provide support. The workshops will also help workers to remotely help their children strengthen their resilience and handle problems. The third focus is on parenting skills and will offer practical guidance on how migrant workers who are unable to be a part of their child’s everyday life can effectively communicate and engage with their child. This is designed to strengthen the parent-child bond when they do have the opportunity to be with each other.

Learnings from this year’s Family-Friendly Spaces and Remote Parenting Workshops are being used to help ICTI Ethical Toy Program scale-up both projects in future years. We hope that even more workers – and their children – will reap the benefits next year and beyond.