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The Migrant Exodus

In an economy still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Chinese migrant workers are heading back to the countryside as jobs in cities dwindle, posing challenges to local employers, governments and job markets

By NewsChina Updated Nov.1

People attend a job fair targeting returning migrant workers held in Haozhou, Anhui Province, February, 2016

After looking for a job for months, 54-year-old bricklayer Xu Liangyuan returned to rural Xiaogan, Hubei Province in August. Having worked in Beijing for 17 years, Xu went home for the Spring Festival and was stuck in Hubei until April due to pandemic-related travel restrictions. He first looked in neighboring Hunan Province and then returned to Beijing in June as the pandemic subdued, but could not find a stable job. Frustrated, he left the capital. His wife, who used to clean apartments in Beijing, has not even bothered looking for work. 

Xu’s experience is typical of migrant workers in China whose main source of income comes from working in cities. By 2019, there were 290 million migrant workers in China. Most return to their homes for the Spring Festival holiday every winter, and then return to cities for another year’s work. But this year, the Covid-19 lockdown in February prevented many of China’s 130 million migrant workers from going back to work, according to data from the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MHRSS). As the pandemic subsided in China, the majority managed to trickle back to cities. But  

with the shortage of jobs, many returned to their hometowns again. 

Returning Home 
By June, Xu was back in Beijing, and found it much harder than before to find stable work. Construction sites had not fully restarted, and odd jobs were hard to come by. When Xu finally found work, his employer complained there were faults in his craftsmanship and refused to pay. 

“Opportunities have clearly dried up. Salaries are lower, too. But what worries us most is the instability. You don’t know when the next job will come,” Xu said.  

Struggling to afford to live in Beijing without a stable job, Xu stayed in his hometown to save on expenses.  

The pandemic brought a halt to much of the country’s economy in February, which has dragged employment down, despite the slow recovery. In July, the urban unemployment rate was 5.7 percent, 0.4 percent higher than the same period last year.  

But millions of migrant workers from rural areas, who were more economically vulnerable under the pandemic, are not covered in the data, which means the unemployment rate is likely much higher. In the worst case scenario, about 25 million migrant workers could lose their jobs due to the pandemic, Chen Zhigang, a professor of rural economy at the School of Public Affairs at Zhejiang University, said in an online forum held by his school in June. 

Sectors that rely on migrant workers such as construction, catering and hospitality were slow to resume. Catering, hospitality and wholesale and retail in the tertiary industry, which employed 51 percent of migrant workers in 2019, suffered under quarantine requirements and because of lower demand. In the second quarter, the added value of catering and hospitality still saw a year-on-year drop of 26.8 percent, while wholesale and retail fell 8.1 percent. Though the numbers looked better than the first quarter, the impact caused a wave of closures in the catering industry.  

The blow to manufacturing, particularly exports, was magnified as the pandemic spread globally. China’s foreign trade volume plunged by 6.4 percent in the first quarter, with exports dropping by 11.4 percent. It climbed back in the second quarter but remained below normal levels. Many enterprises went bankrupt or suspended trading for lack of orders, resulting in large-scale unemployment.  

Wen Simei, a professor and former president of South China Agricultural University, told NewsChina that by the end of June, nearly 90 percent of migrant workers had returned to their jobs in the Pearl River Delta Area, a manufacturing and trade hub in South China’s Guangdong Province. “But at least 40 percent of private companies have failed to fully resume production. Less than 70 percent managed to regain full employment. It means 30 percent of migrant workers might become jobless,” Wen said.  

The pandemic will have a longer impact on employment than the 2008 financial crisis, Wen said, as the continued spread of the virus affects the international supply chain which consequently hurts the domestic supply chain. 

Pan Chengfen, a deliveryman from South China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region who helps operate a non-profit center for migrant workers in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, said that many have left Dongguan after losing their factory jobs or after employers cut their hours to reduce labor costs. Many were laid off after factories went bankrupt.  

“The cost of living here is increasing. If you don’t earn enough, you can’t afford to be idle,” Pan said, adding that those who stay have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Pan has to take on more hours as more people turn to the delivery business for work, which dilutes the number of orders for each courier.  

A survey by the South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou provided by Wen shows that in the Pearl River Delta Area, 15 percent of migrant workers returned to their hometowns after going back to work in cities following the pandemic lockdowns. Another 12 percent expressed a desire to return home, the majority of whom were born before 1980. “Unstable employment and decreased incomes are the main reasons for this,” Wen said.  

In recent years, local governments have provided training and opportunities for migrant workers returning to their hometowns, such as animal husbandry, feed production and livestock processing

Caught in the Middle
But there are no guarantees in going back home. In recent years, more migrant workers, particularly those in their 50s or 60s who lack competitiveness in the urban job market, have gone home as the cost of living in cities increases and job opportunities in the countryside grow amid China’s efforts to activate its rural economy.  

Data from the National Bureau of Statistics shows that the proportion of former migrant workers employed back home among the overall number of migrant workers increased from 37.25 percent to 40.12 percent between 2011 and 2018.  

But as businesses in counties and towns are also still reeling from the pandemic, the influx of labor from cities, combined with people who remained home since the initial lockdowns following the Spring Festival, poses extra challenges for local job markets. 

“Returning workers no doubt will put pressure on the job markets in their hometowns and reduce the overall incomes of locals. Some families might sink back into poverty as a result,” Wen said.  

Xiao, a former clothing factory worker in Pinghu, Zhejiang Province, managed to find a job back home in Anhui Province after a bankrupt mask factory reopened during the pandemic.  

Xu was less fortunate. He could not find a job in his county as “there are too many people waiting for one opening.” And unlike in Beijing, where he was paid soon after work wrapped up, employers in his hometown pay workers in one lump sum at the end of the year, which he finds hard to accept. “I’m anxious that I’m wasting time. I see no hope here, and I’m planning to go back to Beijing. I’ll take my chances there,” he said.  

Two of Pan’s cousins from Guangxi returned home from Dongguan after a factory furloughed them. But after two weeks of failing to find work, they went back to Dongguan.  

“Their factory skills don’t fit the local job market. The opportunities in our hometown, which are limited, are for those who have stayed here and are familiar with the channels. People who suddenly go back home have no competitive edge,” Pan said. 

Creating Jobs  
As stabilizing overall employment tops China’s agenda this year, reiterated by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in his government work report in May, the employment of migrant workers has drawn special attention. Since March, policies have aimed to boost employment for those in rural areas and cities, such as encouraging them to resume farming, work on infrastructure projects or try new forms of business like livestream selling. In an August guideline released by the MHRSS, the National Development and Reform Commission and a dozen other departments targeting the employment of migrant workers, the government called for more support for services and labor-intensive industries that employ migrant workers. It also called for local governments to encourage farming, agricultural product processing and tourism as ways to create jobs, as well as subsidies for returning migrant workers to start their own businesses.  

These efforts paid off, said Wu Xiaoling, an official with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, at a press conference on August 7. “By the end of July, more than 13 million migrant workers who have returned or stayed at home were employed,” Wu said.  

But as there are millions of migrant workers, these support policies could have limited reach. Wen suggested that the local employment guidance department and other authorities first work together to assess the real situation and then help returning migrant workers become self-employed or integrate into the local job market.  

He also suggested that governments in urban areas support smaller businesses in expanding employment, create more public service jobs, and increase training for migrant workers, particularly younger ones who remain in cities or who were born in cities to migrant workers but do not have a local residence permit, which means they do not have the same access to urban services and the social security net.  

“The younger generation of migrant workers born after 1980, many of whom are the children of migrant workers, are used to an urban lifestyle and are not familiar with farming. They are unlikely to want to return to their parents’ hometowns. Providing them with opportunities and stabilizing their expectations will prepare for the surge in labor demand when the economy resumes,” Wen said.  

He Xuefeng, director of the School of Sociology at Wuhan University, said that China’s land system provides a buffer against uncertainties in the job market. 

“China’s reliance on the international market is well below that of 2008,” He said. “Most importantly, with its current rural system, China is more resilient than other countries in coping with a financial crisis. In 2008, 21 million migrant workers lost their jobs, but China managed to overcome the crisis with relative ease. It did not mean they were starving. They at least were fed and clothed by what they could get from working the land. It’s the same today. This means that many older migrant workers may have to return home years earlier than they expected or some young people may have to do work they would never have considered before.” 

He said that heavy-handed intervention in the economy is unnecessary, as the economic downturn has not descended into social disorder or political turmoil that could further impact the economy. He also expressed concern about local authorities encouraging former migrant workers to start their own businesses in the current economic climate. 

“[Migrant workers] are from vulnerable groups with limited capital and opportunities. The fields they can enter are mostly dealing with oversupply. It would be risky for them to start businesses with their life savings during normal times. In the economic downturn, their investments are even more likely to fail, which would be devastating to them,” He said.