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Thu, Jun 05, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Migrant laborers still afraid to return to Chinese capital

RIDING OUT THE STORM Migrant workers from the countryside are staying away from jobs in Beijing, despite assurances that life is returning to normal

REUTERS , BEIJING

Life in the Chinese capital is returning to normal as fear of the SARS virus recedes, but the traffic jams and crowded malls belie the fact that many key members of the labor force -- migrant workers -- are absent.

Like most cities, Beijing draws hordes of people from the provinces seeking work as maids, builders and other low-paid service-sector staff, but many of its two million migrants headed home when SARS erupted in April.

With signs health authorities are bringing SARS under control some are trickling back -- to a battery of health checks and quarantine measures -- but many are waiting it out at home.

The six-chair Qiongfang Beauty and Barber Shop stayed open through the outbreak, but it might as well have shut -- half of the beauty parlor's stylists and assistants left town for fear of catching SARS.

"They've called, but we don't know when they're coming back," the manager said with a resigned shrug as a pair of assistants in high heels and blue jeans tried half-heartedly to lure customers off the street.

"I guess we'll just see them when SARS is over," he said.

The Qiongfang is far from unique.

There are about 80 million migrant workers in China and up to eight million have fled the cities since SARS first surfaced in southern China late last year. About 600,000 had left the capital by mid-May.

The flight has dented city economies, highlighing the importance of migrant workers to national growth. The ripples have in turn spread to rural areas where remittances boost living standards.

Some experts forecast migrant labourers will lose some 40 billion yuan (US$5 billion) this year because they left city jobs, slashing farmers' incomes and pushing some into poverty, state media reported on Wednesday.

"Both of these are problems we have to watch," said economist Yiping Huang of Salomon Smith Barney in Hong Kong.

"We'll probably see more impact in the cities because activities in these areas obviously are slowing down, particularly in construction and some of the informal sectors," Hunag said.

Some Beijing building sites have fallen idle and hundreds -- possibly thousands -- of restaurants have closed down.

"The service sector is probably something that will be most hard hit," Huang said.

Services make up about a third of gross domestic product, which grew a year-on-year 8.9 percent in April, after a first quarter rise of 9.9 percent.

In the countryside, where more than 800 million of China's 1.3 billion people live, many rural families rely on money sent home from relatives working in cities to supplement meagre incomes -- which average 2,300 yuan (US$280) per capita per year.

Even without the impact of SARS, households relying on agriculture -- 60 percent -- have seen their incomes drop since 1997.

"At the very least they will not get wages for April, May and even June," said People's University economics professor Zhao Xijun.

"Consumption will shrink and it will have an affect on the local economy," Zhao said.

Economists say it will take some time for workers to return to their city jobs. The declining numbers of new SARS cases is encouraging, but many are wary of the official figures.

"Overall, the assumption really depends on how quickly SARS is really controlled and people feel safe to travel and to come back," Hunag said.

"That will be a critical issue," Huang said.

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