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China: empty bowls and unemployment

This article is over 12 years, 11 months old
Journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai spoke to migrant workers at a labour market in Sichuan province about the impact of the global economic crisis on China’s economy
Issue 2140
Workers in Sichuan (Pic: Hsiao-Hung Pai)
Workers in Sichuan (Pic: Hsiao-Hung Pai)

The global recession has had a huge impact on working class people in China. Since the earthquake in Sichuan province in May last year, over 600,000 migrant workers have left their jobs and returned home from other parts of the country to see their families.

But the Chinese media has not mentioned that the workers have remained jobless for months on end. And more workers are returning to Sichuan from the cities, particularly in the manufacturing heartland of the south, where toy, textile and electronic factories are closing down.

The media silence is bizarre considering that Sichuan is the largest source of migrant workers in western China, with 20 million peasants having left the fields to work in the cities.

I went to City East Labour Market in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, to talk to the jobless workers from rural areas.

The central government estimated that one and a half million people are unemployed in Sichuan. In the areas hardest hit by the earthquake, more than 80 percent remain unemployed.

Hundreds of rural workers gathered in front of the market. They had come from surrounding regions and as far away as Wenchuan, the epicentre of the earthquake, which is about five hours by bus.

Some of them voluntarily returned to Sichuan following the earthquake because their villages were hit and they were concerned about their families.

Others had been laid off. None of the rural jobseekers here have had any luck in finding work in the last few months.

A white haired man in his fifties appeared in the crowd. He had come from the countryside to find work.

He told me, “I worked in Shenzhen in Guangdong province as a builder for years. Life was really tough there. They often delayed wages and you never know whether and when you’d be paid.

“When they need you, they pay you peanuts. When they want to cut the workforce, you’re the first to go. I was laid off, with a few others, after the earthquake. I have been here for months.’

“Their thinking is that we won’t make a fuss. They think that because we are used to moving around for work we will simply go to another city or another province to find a rice bowl.

“I came home because I was worried about my family – our house was damaged in the quake.”

A man in his early thirties also came up to talk. He is called Shen Wei, from Liangshan, and is a member of the Yi ethnic minority group.

“I come here every day, to look for work,” he said. “It’s been so difficult. They don’t want us (people of Yi origin). We don’t know why. I told them that I’d take any kind of work.”

Shen Wei’s story is the story of the deprived Yi communities and that of the peasant workers in China’s rural hinterland. This doubly disadvantaged social position explains why he’s among the desperate jobless people here.

Since the late 1970s, following government initiatives to focus development on the cities, the income gap between urban dwellers and the rural population has widened.

The uneven development of town and country had deepened throughout the following three decades of economic reforms. Interior provinces like Sichuan, with insufficient infrastructure and a low level of industrialisation, have found it difficult to keep up.

The gap has led to many Sichuanese from rural villages taking a big step – migrating to the cities for work. Many rural youths from Sichuan have given the best days of their lives to increasing China’s development.

Wei has spent his youth toiling in all kinds of industries in eight provinces across China. Rural poverty and the scarcity of opportunities left him no choice but to live a life of constant migration. His parents have depended on his earnings.

Even with such a burden on his shoulders, he told his story with optimism.

Wei said, “Although we come from rural, mountainous areas all over Sichuan, we Yi people are able to travel places. We move from place to place to make a living. That’s our life and we are used to it.

“I got recruited to a new job. It was manufacturing toys and mobile phones in a factory in Guangdong province.

“A group of us from the Yi group worked there. We were all young and keen to work hard. Some kids, aged between 14 and 16, were working there, too.

“Our employer was aware that these youths were underage. But he didn’t care. We got paid three yuan (31p) per hour there. We worked 12 hours a day, so that made us £3.69 per day – it’s a normal kind of rate for people of our background.

“We get the worst pay and the worst treatment. We worked like hell. But who was going to do anything for us? Who cares about us?

Night shift

“It was heavy work and lots of overtime at night when we got paid £1 per hour. I preferred to work nights because the daytime overtime work was less well-paid – 41p per hour.

“The living costs weren’t as crazy as in Beijing, so we tried to put up with the pay level. I managed to work there for three long years.

“The biggest problem at that factory was that withholding wages was normal practice. The management called it a ‘deposit’ and they kept the wages for us for a year, until we returned home for the winter. It was the same every year.

“That means we couldn’t send money home. My family had to wait and wait. This practice was aimed to keep workers from leaving the job. Unfortunately this isn’t unusual in China.

“We had no identification papers – we are too poor to ever meet the criteria to get registered in the city. As we are not registered, we had no status and no rights.”

The household (hukou) registration system has been the fundamental cause of migrant workers’ lack of rights since it was established in 1958 to control rural-to-urban migration.

Since 1997, migrants who had a stable source of income and a regular place of residence for more than two years were eligible to apply to transfer their hukou to 450 designated towns and cities.

These rules have proved impossible for most migrants, many of who also had to work in secondary and tertiary industries – such as management or professional services – and own an apartment to be able to apply for the transfer.

The rules are tough and irregularly applied. Local governments set their own requirements. Very few migrants managed to apply for the hukou transfer.

According to the China Labour Bulletin, “The policies were like an immigration scheme to attract investment and talent. For the majority of migrants, an urban hukou registration is still beyond reach.”

Discrimination remains, and the authorities’ focus have shifted back to crime and the management of migrant workers instead of ending discriminatory policies.

In late 2007, Guangdong public security bureau highlighted “public safety” as the most important aspect of “migrant worker management”. In reality, it is the migrant workers’ personal safety that is in question.

Wei said, “It was becoming more difficult and dangerous for us to live in Guangdong. Some workers of Yi origin were beaten up on the streets.

“Even with the prejudice and violence against us, we stayed. We carried on working without being able to use health services. A number of workers from Liangshan had died of sickness. But our lives are so cheap. No compensation. No one would make a noise.”

An increasing number of migrant workers have lost their jobs or gone without pay since last November as firms go bust or downsize their operations. The situation is now deteriorating.

In Guangdong, migrant workers suffer the most. The anger and frustration among these workers has expressed itself in protests as employers fled and factories closed down.

The local governments have taken the side of the companies. There is no law in China to punish those employers who flee without paying wages. In most cases, helpless migrant workers could do nothing but return home.

In January, an increasing number of migrant workers headed home. While official statistics put the unemployment rate at 4 percent, the real figure is much higher as the majority of rural migrants are not registered in the cities.

In Chengdu, the growing number of the returning unemployed is adding to the number of jobless outside places such as the City East Labour Market.

While rural Sichuanese are desperately searching for work, the city continues to pull in investment.

A gigantic investment advert almost made us choke on our rice. It read, “We have a sea of commodities. We are a paradise for merchants.”

Chinese Whispers: The true story behind Britain’s hidden army of labour by Hsiao-Hung Pai is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to »

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