A study on the income gap between urban household registrants and rural migrant workers from the perspective of occupational stratification

Turn Feng

As China’s economic development enters a new normal characterized by a focus on industrial restrucniring, it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain an export-dependent economic model that relies on cheap labor as a comparative advantage. Aside from accelerating technological innovation and industrial transformation, the main path ahead for ensuring stable economic and social development under the new normal is to rely instead on the promotion of new urbanization and the expansion of domestic consumption. The key to promoting new urbanization and expanding domestic demand lies in narrowing the income gap between the registered urban population and rural migrant workers, the population of rural household registrants who have moved to cities in search of work; it must be ensured that rural migrant workers receive reasonable compensation for their labor, and that their income levels be raised. In order to promote the economic and social integration of rural migrant workers into the cities, it will be necessary to eliminate unfair social institutions and market rules, establish a unified labor market, and change the discriminatory position of rural migrant workers in the labor market.

In real life, the differences between the registered urban population and migrant workers in the labor market can be described on three different levels. First, in terms of occupational income, there is unequal pay for equal work; even though members from the two groups are engaged in the same or similar occupation, a significant income gap exists between the two. Second, there is a “sticky floor effect” in the occupational distribution. Migrant workers often obtain only the lowest positions in the urban labor market, and are thus “stuck” to the floor at the lower level of the labor market. Finally, there is also a “ceiling effect” in occupational mobility; even if migrant workers obtain the prerequisite qualifications for higher positions in the labor market, they are still unable to obtain those positions.

These three differences between the registered urban population and migrant workers in the three levels of occupation are both coexisting and interrelated. In previous research, economists and sociologists mostly focused on the issue of different pay for equal work, while the labor market segmentation theory was the most widely used theoretical framework. However, the theory of labor market segmentation fails to satisfactorily explain the difference between occupational distribution and occupational mobility. The social stratification theory, which uses occupation as the main indicator, is better suited for explaining this phenomenon. This article combines the research framework of sociology and economics with the theory of labor market segmentation and occupational stratification to analyze the income gap between the registered urban population and migrant workers. It is hoped that this approach will yield new findings on the issue.

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