/ 23 February 2009

Dark times befall China’s drifting migrants

The parched farmlands of central China hold no future for Li Honglin, but she is trapped there until word comes from a clothing factory far away on the coast where she used to work.

Li’s boss promised to call her back to her job as a sewing machinist when the factory resumes full production. It’s not clear when that might happen, though, as China’s garment exports have been decimated by the economic downturn and orders are thin.

Wearing tight pants and high-heel shoes studded with rhinestones, Li stood with her parents and elderly neighbours as they played mahjong, a type of solitaire, late into the afternoon by a dusty road about an hour’s drive from Henan’s provincial capital, Zhengzhou.

”Almost all my friends have already gone back to the big cities, but I’m not rushing out. You need to have a job to live in the city. It’s too expensive to get by without one,” she said.

Li’s caution sets her apart from the masses of rural Chinese who are still thronging to the country’s industrial jungle despite bleak employment prospects, fuelling official fears that city streets could turn into breeding grounds for disappointed, disgruntled young men.

Hoping to keep unemployed migrants in the countryside at the end of their visits home for the Lunar New Year holiday, the government has offered them funds and training to start their own businesses.

Despite the incentives, when Chinese New Year celebrations ended this month, tens of millions left their family plots of hardscrabble land to seek riches, or at least a decent wage, in factories and on construction sites.

Many have run square into the hard realities of the global financial crisis.

”It’s no good. I had found work by this time last year but I’ve had no opportunities, nothing, so far this year,” said Zhao Xichang, standing by a hand-painted sign that advertised his skills as a driver at a job market in Zhengzhou.

Snaking lines
Long lines of migrants, mainly men in rumpled suits, snaked down the street just a few minutes’ walk from the train station, each with a sign like Zhao’s. There were chefs and drivers, electricians and builders, plumbers and handymen.

A wrinkled man in a cloth cap sat at a corner table, charging half a yuan ($0,07) to paint job-wanted signs for the illiterate.

Rumours spread about where there might be more work. One man said Beijing. Another scoffed, saying he had left the capital because its economy had turned sour.

”People here barely have enough to eat. And it’s going to be bad for society if the situation doesn’t improve,” Zhao said. Not that there would be protests, just unhappiness, he quickly added.

About 20 million rural migrants have lost work as the nation’s economy has slowed, a senior official said this month. Some economists think that number may double.

”I could go back to my farm, but there’s really nothing to do there. The wheat is already planted and it’s another three months before the harvest,” Zhao said.

Henan is a bellwether province for the country’s estimated 130 million migrants, with roughly one in every six coming from its yellow soil. The provincial government has been at the forefront of crafting plans to help those down on their luck.

”This is really a crucial period. If they can go out and find a job in the next month, they should do well for the rest of the year. If not, it will be more difficult,” said Liu Tao, deputy head of the Henan Labour and Social Security Department.

The province’s approach has been two-pronged: providing more information to migrants about where there are urban jobs to be found, while also encouraging them to start their own, largely agricultural businesses in the countryside.

The vast majority of Henan’s migrants, up to 80%, have opted to shoot for city employment and it is too early to judge whether those who end up empty-handed will return to the countryside, Liu said.

Off the land
Four months without rain have dried out Henan’s wheat and vegetable crops, the severe drought underscoring why many migrants dismiss farming as a viable alternative to factory work.

Wang Yu, 44, walked through her cracked field near Donggao village with a shovel, scraping away withered rapeseed leaves.

Despite the state of her crops, the sturdy woman was more concerned that her daughter might not find work in the southern export hub of Shenzhen after being laid off last year by a plastics factory.

”It had been great two years ago, really good money,” Wang said. ”She sent a little back now and then, and paid for our other daughter’s school fees in Beijing, 10 000 yuan a year. We depended on her for that.”

Wang waved aside the suggestion that her daughter could fall back on farming.

”There’s no money to be made off the land. And it’s too dirty here,” she said.

China’s rural residents had per-capita incomes of 4 761 yuan last year, 3,3 times less than their urban counterparts. That gap steadily widened during the country’s past decade of scorching growth, from 2,5 times in 1997.

Like Li, the textile worker stuck watching her parents play mahjong, many migrants may have little choice but to languish in the countryside if jobs in cities fail to materialise.

For the government, at least, that would not be all bad.

”How could there be social instability here? That would mean fighting with my own family,” Li said. — Reuters