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 Lunar 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 on 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 Lunar New Year, which begins on 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.
Last month, 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 China Daily newspaper reported.
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 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 on 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 (US$220), refused to accept the deal.
Calls to the factory rang unanswered on 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.