Mon, Nov 17, 2008 - Page 12 News List

China’s migrant workers cut adrift by economic woes

HEADING HOMEIn Guangdong Province, thousands of workers have gathered outside shuttered factories, demanding unpaid wages, forcing authorities to act


As the global financial crisis squeezes once-thriving Chinese manufacturing regions, the fate of people like Xue Fengqiao looks to figure ever higher on the Chinese leadership’s agenda.

Xue, 24, and his fiancee migrated from poor Shanxi Province to coastal Fujian 14 months ago, dreaming of amassing a nest egg by working factory jobs.

But both were laid off last month, joining the swelling ranks of Chinese workers cut adrift by the crisis, and who now pose a looming stability problem for China’s leaders.

“We really don’t know what to do. We can’t go home but there are fewer jobs here and they don’t pay enough,” said Xue, sitting dejectedly in a government jobs center crowded with anxious unemployed workers.

Xue was let go by a machinery factory in this industrial town as foreign orders dried up.

“It’s even worse in other places. Everyone we know is desperate,” he said.

The Chinese Communist Party already grapples with thousands of violent public outbursts each year by marginalised people in society.

And experts warn the problem could spike as more of China’s estimated 200 million rural migrant workers lose their jobs.

Layoffs had already been growing as Chinese manufacturers retooled in recent years for higher-value products, said Constance Thomas, the International Labor Organization’s China director.

But the ILO expects “at least several million” new jobless due to the global crisis.

“That has to be any leader’s greatest fear — to have a large percentage of their population unemployed, without income, without security. Clearly, measures have to be taken to ensure that doesn’t happen,” Thomas said.

An estimated 30 million workers lost jobs from 1996 to 2004 as the government restructured state-owned companies, causing widespread protests and contributing to the masses of migrant workers today.

This time, authorities have even less control over the process, said Willy Lam, a veteran China-watcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“Last time, the government could slow down layoffs if needed. But now global forces are at work. The leadership is very worried,” he said.

The government this month announced a US$586 billion package to counter the export pain with infrastructure and other projects that will create jobs.

The trouble has been most acute in southern Guangdong Province, China’s manufacturing heartland, where one-fifth of factories in major cities are expected to close by January alone, according to industry estimates.

Thousands of workers have gathered outside shuttered factories there, demanding unpaid wages, forcing local authorities to intervene.

But the pain is now spreading up the coast to places such as Tongan.

Gao Fengxiang, 42, came from Hunan Province in February to a factory job here.

Three weeks ago he was laid off and his employer and government officials have denied him required unemployment and medical insurance, he said.

“We have been cheated. They lied to us,” Gao said, his voice rising in the Tongan labor office as fellow migrants murmured in agreement.

The shabby office is packed with jobless workers checking job advertisements offering 1,200 yuan to 2,500 yuan (about US$175 to US$370) — about 50 percent less than earlier this year, Gao said.

“None of the jobs pay enough. We’re abandoned,” he said.

The ILO’s Thomas said China was ramping up re-training programs and addressing holes in the social safety net. She expects big infrastructure projects to absorb many workers soon.

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