The global economic downturn has had a devastating impact world-wide. But in China, up to 150 million migrant workers have been sent home as factories have closed due to the global recession.
Because the Communist government in China controls the state media, it is not easy to determine the full extent of this economic slowdown and what it means. But many Western analaysts say the vast numbers of citified Chinese migrant works who are now returing to the country side without work poses the danger of social unrest within China.
Last January, during the Chinese Lunar New Year travel period, snow and cold disrupted 2.2 billion travel trips by either rail, air or bus.
This year the late January 2009 New Year is already underway for some as millions are headed home without work due to the struggling economy….
John E. Carey
Wakefield Chapel, Virginia
China’s Migrant Unemployment Sparks New Effort
Police stand guard, top, as workers gather at the gate of Jianrong Suitcase Factory in Dongguan, Southern city in China, Friday, Dec.19, 2008. Workers at a suitcase factory in southern China are in a standoff with police over a wage dispute, one of a series of protests in southern China, where thousands of companies have gone bust this year. More than 30 police, some with riot helmets and shields, are guarding the front of the factory Friday in the southern city of Dongguan.(AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
By William Foreman
Laid-off migrant worker Chen Li had red scrape marks on his right cheek from a scuffle with riot police outside his factory that went bust this week in southern China.
Now the angry young man is going home early to his village in northern Hubei province for the annual Chinese New Year holiday, where he says he will be bored and idle for a couple of months. It’s restless migrants like Chen who are among the biggest worries for Chinese leaders trying to maintain social order during a souring economy.
“I’ve grown used to living in the city now,” said Chen, 25, looking urbane Friday in a new but slightly dusty blue suit. “I just can’t stand the country life anymore.”
During boom years, workers like Chen would still be toiling on the assembly line, looking forward to banking another month or so of pay before the Chinese New Year, which begins Jan. 26. But this year thousands of factories have gone belly up in Guangdong province – the country’s main manufacturing hub – forcing the migrants to head home early.
With the global economic downturn, Christmas export orders were down for Chinese factories, and more bad economic news has followed. In November, growth in China’s factory output fell to its lowest level in nearly seven years. More than 7,000 companies in Guangdong closed down or moved elsewhere in the first nine months of the year, the official China Daily newspaper reported.
Workers are shown inside the Jianrong Suitcase Factory in Dongguan, China, Friday, Dec. 19, 2008. Workers at the Jianrong Suitcase Factory are in a standoff with police over a wage dispute, one of a series of protests in southern China, where thousands of companies have gone bust this year.(AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
For workers like Chen, the chances of finding another job are low. This is the slow season, with Christmas orders already shipped off. A new hiring frenzy normally kicks off after the New Year holiday, when migrants flood back to industrial zones in one of the world’s biggest annual human migrations.
Until then, authorities will be under pressure to keep a lid on discontent in villages, where many workers may still be simmering over how their jobs came to a bad end.
It has become common in Guangdong for factory owners to suddenly shut down their cash-strapped plants and disappear without paying laborers.
That’s what happened at Chen’s factory – the Jianrong Suitcase Factory in the city of Dongguan. The plant shut down Tuesday without warning and its 300 workers began taking to the streets, demanding full payment of wages.
Local government officials eventually glued an announcement to the factory’s walls, saying its Japanese owner could not be located and the workers would only get 60 percent of the monthly wages they had earned since October. The laborers, paid an average monthly salary of 1,500 yuan, or about $220, refused to accept the deal.
Calls to the factory rang unanswered Friday, and there was no information on the owner or his whereabouts; the workers said the factory’s Taiwanese manager had not been seen since Tuesday.
On Friday morning, riot police with helmets and shields were called in and sealed off the factory compound, blocking the workers, who live in dormitories inside, from leaving. The plan appeared to be to keep them from protesting outside the factory until they collected their final wages and left for the holiday.
But by noon, about 100 workers got fed up and marched out of the factory. They were led by a short, stocky worker named Dai Houxue, who chanted, “There are no human rights here!” as he pushed away the arm of a policeman who tried to restrain him.
“They have been trying to lock us up in the factory because they don’t want us to come out and have the international media cover our protest,” Dai said.
The scene challenged the popular stereotype of Chinese migrant workers as being simple country folk, subservient to officialdom and great at “eating bitterness” – enduring hardship without complaint. In fact, for many, factory work is a mind-opening experience that exposes them to protest tactics and concepts like labor rights.
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In the crowds still stranded by snow at train stations around China stand some of the country’s most valuable economic assets: migrant workers.
This group of 150 million to 200 million farmers — more than the population of the United Kingdom, France and Australia combined — account for the majority of employees in China’s world-beating manufacturing sector, the bulk of its coal miners and most of its construction workers.
During the past two decades, according to a conservative estimate from UNESCO and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, migrants have contributed 16 percent of gross domestic product growth.
Living for years at a time in coastal cities, China’s migrant workers have built the country’s skyscrapers and assembled its exports, sending tens of billions of dollars in earnings home to their families in poor inland provinces. For the workers known as “factories without smoke,” the Chinese New Year holiday is often their only annual vacation.
The forces that brought these smokeless factories to the cities took shape in the early 1980s, when Beijing, as part of an easing of central controls on the economy, loosened internal mobility regulations. Farmers have been pouring out of the countryside ever since, in what is believed to be the world’s largest internal migration.
They leave for mostly economic reasons: wages in the cities are higher than what workers could earn at home. And life there, many find, is more exciting than back on the farm.
Today, migrants dominate the Chinese labor force in dirty and dangerous trades: 70 percent of construction workers, 68 percent of manufacturing employees, and 80 percent of coal miners are migrant workers. But not all are on their hands and knees. More than 60 percent of staff in the service trade, according to state media, are migrants as well.
On average, migrants tend to be among the best educated people in their villages. Still, many have little more than a junior high school diploma. Many migrate as teenagers, often with friends or neighbors, leaving behind their family in the countryside. More than half are men, but the toy and shoe factories of southern China prefer women — they are easier to control, managers say, and their fingers more nimble.
Wages vary by city and company, but many migrants in export factories in the south take home about Rmb1,000 a month ($139) — or even more. They sleep 12 to a room in bunkbed dormitories furnished by their employers, working six and sometimes seven days a week for months at a time. Wages are not always paid on time, occasionally not at all.
By Alexandra Harney
Alexandra Harney is a Hong Kong-based writer and the author of “The China Price: The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage” (Penguin Press, 2008).
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The vast majority of the Chinese, that is its 900 million peasants, still do not enjoy the basic right – enshrined both in the United Nations charter and the Chinese constitution – to choose where they live in their country.http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/EC08Ad02.html
Under the country’s household registration system, called hukou, they are tied to the land, locked out of the more affluent urban life. Only a relatively small number are temporarily allowed to work in the cities.
Some of the rural migrants are construction workers, sent home when the job is over. Many others are young girls making toys, clothing and shoes in the sweatshop factories in China’s coastal cities.
Official figures put the number of people who leave the fields to labor in cities at about 90 million. Some economists say it is as high as 130 million.
Many peasant workers are only paid at the whim of their employers, and can be expelled without appeal at a moment’s notice because they have no legal right to live there. Because of this status, they have little access to the judicial courts.
This year, several state-run newspapers reported cases of desperate public protest, such as that of two men in the southern city of Guangzhou who stood on the edge of a high building and threatened to jump if they were not paid before the Chinese New Year in February.
While working in the cities, peasants do the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs. They are barred from access to schools, hospitals, nurseries and public housing and enjoy almost no legal rights. Nearly all the central government’s budget is spent on providing for the urban population, leaving the rural migrants as second-class citizens in their own country.
–From: Antoaneta Bezlova, Asia Times