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Migrant workers who helped build modern China have scant or no pensions, and can’t retire

BEIJING (AP) — At 53, Guan Junling is too old to get hired at factories anymore. But for migrant workers like her, not working is not an option.

For decades, they have come from farming villages to find work in the cities. Toiling in sweatshops and building apartment complexes they could never afford to live in, they played a vital role in China’s transformation into an economic powerhouse.

As they grow older, the first generation of migrant workers is struggling to find jobs in a slowing economy. Many are financially strapped, so they have to keep looking.

“There is no such thing as a ‘retirement’ or ‘pensions’ for rural people. You can only rely on yourself and work,” Guan said. “When can you stop working? It’s really not until you have to lie in bed and you can’t do anything.”

She now relies on housecleaning gigs, working long days to squirrel away a little money in case of a health emergency. Migrant workers can get subsidized health care in their hometowns, but they have little or no coverage elsewhere. If Guan needs to go to hospital in Beijing, she has to pay out of pocket.

As China’s population ages, so are its migrant workers. About 85 million were over 50 in 2022, the latest year for which data is available, accounting for 29% of all migrant workers and up from 15% a decade earlier. With limited or no pensions and health insurance, they need to keep working.

About 75% said they would work beyond the age of 60 in a questionnaire distributed to 2,500 first-generation migrant workers between 2018 to 2022, according to Qiu Fengxian, a scholar on rural sociology who described her research in a talk last year. The first-generation refers to those born in the 1970s or earlier.

Older workers are being hit by a double