Shift In Chinese Labor Force Marks Poor Economy

The second of a three-part series.

Travelers at Guangzhou railway station i i

hide captionThe number of migrant laborers passing through the Guangzhou railway station heading home is on the rise. Many of them have lost jobs in the Pearl River Delta's hard-hit export manufacturing sector.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR
Travelers at Guangzhou railway station

The number of migrant laborers passing through the Guangzhou railway station heading home is on the rise. Many of them have lost jobs in the Pearl River Delta's hard-hit export manufacturing sector.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

As the global economic downturn has hit China's manufacturing sector, many of the country's 100 million migrant workers are leaving factory towns along the coast and seeking work closer to home.

At the Guangzhou railway station, the tide of migrant labor ebbs and flows with the lunar new year. The Year of the Ox is still more than a month away, but factory closures and a business slowdown mean that more migrants are on the move early this year. They tote their belongings packed into suitcases, hanging from shoulder poles or brimming in plastic buckets.

Yang Yunyao, 25, recently quit his factory job embroidering decorations on clothes. He's waiting to go home to rural Guizhou province. He said he left his job out of despair and boredom.

"The whole market is depressed, so we had nothing to do," Yang says. "We'd just watch TV or roam the streets, and then go to sleep. My boss wanted me to stay on. He offered to keep paying me even if there was no work to do. But I didn't want to get paid for doing nothing."

An Excess Of Workers

There are more workers than there are jobs in China, but since 2004 there's been a shortage of unskilled young migrants to work in factories. Most migrants would prefer to work closer to home, and now there are more opportunities there.

This year, China's fiscal stimulus package means lots of infrastructure spending and job creation in the inland provinces. There will be lots of spending to rebuild parts of Sichuan province devastated by the May earthquake.

Wu Bangzhong, who is headed home to Sichuan, doubts he'll be back after the new year.

"My friend offered me a job building roads at home," Wu says. "I have no future and hope of making more money here in the delta. I'm already this old, so I'll just head home early for the holiday."

Speaking to some migrants, their youthful enterprise and economic progress is radiant. But speak to others, such as Wu, who is 35, and you also hear about rootless drifting and loneliness.

Factories seldom hire people Wu's age unless they have technical or managerial skills. Wu says those things are out of his reach.

"We have no educational degrees. Every year, there are new graduates who are more competitive than we are," he says. "The market changes too fast for us to keep up, and we're very quickly made obsolete."

Developing Local Labor Resources

In response to the current economic crisis, Chinese officials and experts say the Pearl River Delta's only hope is to upgrade its labor-intensive industries, but experts point out that to add more value to products, you need better trained workers.

"Over the past 30 years, the delta has relied on labor from other provinces," says Chen Xinmin, the director of the Institute for Human Resources Management at South China Normal University in Guangzhou. "In future, developing our own province's labor resources will be a key issue. Guangdong's economy can only be upgraded and developed if we make human resources a priority."

But critics say that Guangdong is not investing enough in job training, either for migrants or the local workforce. Liu Kaiming, director of the Institute of Contemporary Observation, a nongovernmental organization that trains and advocates for migrants, says that in recent decades, the Pearl River Delta has done something amazing — it has built a large industrial base, but without a stable industrial workforce.

"The government is only now getting a few resources to spend on training migrant laborers, but the resources all go to government-controlled organizations that are very ineffective," Liu says. "There are only a few [nongovernmental organizations] like ours involved in job training, and we're just a drop in the bucket."

Above the entrance to the Guangzhou train station is written, "My Guangzhou, My Home." But China's household registration system, which keeps out-of-towners from getting welfare benefits, means that it's very hard for migrants to settle permanently in the delta.

China's police are unwilling to dismantle the system any time soon. And until they do, the delta's migrants will remain sojourners in their own country.

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