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Exodus of China's migrant workers

Publication Date : 18-09-2012


Orders are down sharply, jobs have been cut, wages slashed and losses have exceeded 1 million yuan (US$158,000).

No wonder a senior staff member at a Shenzhen company is feeling down in the dumps these days.

Even during the 2008 global recession, things were not so bad, said the general manager of an electronics firm here, who wanted to be known only as Zeng.

Many of his workers have returned to their home provinces, leaving the firm with a leaner workforce of about 100, he said.

Zeng fears he may be one of the next to go. "I'm already making plans to return home and become a farmer if things worsen," he told The Straits Times.

The global economic gloom has hit Shenzhen, the cradle of China's export-dependent economy. As overseas orders plummet, companies are folding, cutting jobs or slashing wages to stay afloat.

These have sent the southern metropolis' army of migrant workers scurrying home to inland provinces. This restless group of surplus workers could potentially cause trouble as Beijing gears up for a top leadership change in the coming weeks.

These workers include job-seeker Ran Ding, 21, from Guangxi region, next door to Guangdong.

"Companies are not giving me a chance, saying they want experienced workers," said the exasperated young man as he scanned job advertisements outside an employment agency in Shenzhen.

"I've been here for a month. I don't want to go home without getting a job, but how long more can I go without money?"

Employers told The Straits Times that they have few options.

"We're not hiring as many because of cost constraints. Also, we're not keen to use young workers because they tend to quit easily and complain of hard work," said a spokesman for Shenzhen Xiangcheng Electronics Technology.

The firm is making do with 100 workers now, compared with 300 last year, when orders streamed in for its satellite navigation products, she added.

This wave of departures is termed "fan xiang chao" in China, which means the trend of returning to one's own villages.

This used to be a fairly harmless annual phenomenon.

Migrant workers pack their bags before the Chinese New Year, crowding the country's rail lines as they leave coastal hubs like Shenzhen to return to their home towns for family reunions.

After the festivities, many head back to the coast to look for work, especially in the mid-year when factories ramp up production for Christmas orders. These days, those who leave often do not come back. The number of job-seekers in Shenzhen fell to 159,000 in June, down 24 per cent from the figure in March.

Chinese officials are concerned. The Vice-Minister of Human Resources and Social Security Xin Changxing told reporters last week that the government is monitoring the situation.

The authorities will step up job creation and training for migrant workers who have returned home, he pledged.

No official data on the total number of jobless migrants is available yet. But it is not believed to have reached the epic levels of 2009, when about 20 million were sent packing from the coastal manufacturing cities.

Still, labour expert Liu Erduo of Renmin University's School of Labour reckons that the government needs to manage the exodus quickly. "It has to ensure there are jobs with good salaries for returning migrant workers, or there could be socio-economic repercussions," he said.

Things are, in fact, looking brighter on that front. China's poorer central provinces, where most migrant workers come from, are showing signs of good job growth with competitive wages. They have managed to get many to stay put instead of heading to far-flung cities like Shenzhen.

For the first time, south-west Sichuan's home-based workers outnumbered those working in other provinces in the first half of the year. Similarly, central Henan province welcomed home about 710,000 migrant workers, more than double the 350,000 last year.

What makes these provinces more attractive is their lower cost of living compared to that in increasingly expensive cities like Shenzhen, according to Henan native Zhao Kaiyan.

Though the average monthly pay in Henan is about 1,500 yuan, compared with 2,500 yuan in Shenzhen, Zhao said her friends prefer to stay home.

"But I want to work here (Shenzhen), so that I can be away from my family and learn to be independent," the 20-year-old said as she waited for prospective employers at a job agency.

The exodus of migrant workers is ironically creating problems for sectors that are still doing well, such as hospitality.

Zhang Quanshou, who supplies workers from Henan, recruited about 20,000 this year, down from some 30,000 in 2010.

It is also posing problems for bosses like Cui Haijie, 35, who started recruiting workers two months ahead of the opening of his Nanfeiyuan hotel this month, even though it usually takes two weeks to do so. "I was worried about a labour crunch... It meant I had to feed 150 workers for an extra two months while they basically did nothing," he said.

Such resilient industries give many hope that Shenzhen, which rose from a fishing village to become China's fourth-biggest metropolis, remains the city of dreams.

Guangxi worker Liang Jishi, 34, for instance, has failed to land a job in the past week despite traipsing around Shenzhen. But he is not giving up yet.

"Yes, the pay back home is rising, but I believe the future is still brighter in Guangdong," he said.


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