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In China, Despair Mounting Among Migrant Workers

China is facing its worst job crisis since it began market reforms 30 years ago. With tens of thousands of manufacturing companies collapsing, leading to major layoffs, the central government's $586 billion stimulus package is focusing on job creation and vocational training, rather than handouts.
China is facing its worst job crisis since it began market reforms 30 years ago. With tens of thousands of manufacturing companies collapsing, leading to major layoffs, the central government's $586 billion stimulus package is focusing on job creation and vocational training, rather than handouts. (Photos By China Photos/getty Images)
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As it has gradually opened up its economy, China has periodically struggled with high unemployment. The most recent crisis before this one was in the late 1980s to mid-1990s, when many of the country's state-owned enterprises were privatized. But that shift affected only one segment of the population. "There was almost no problem with migrant workers and fresh graduates from college. However, now the unemployment problem is nationwide," said Chen Bulei, a labor law researcher at Renmin University in Beijing. Chen said that the unemployment issue today "is not only a simple economic problem," but also a social one. This has been evident in the protests that unemployed workers have staged in recent months.

"It's like migrant workers are crossing a river to reach the bank. Right now they are just in the middle of the river. The moving has not yet finished -- can they obtain equal treatment as city citizens? If this cannot be solved effectively, migrant workers are a very unstable factor," Chen said.

A year ago, Yiwu was a showcase for a booming China. The streets were filled with shiny new cars shuttling businessmen to meetings to sign multimillion-dollar manufacturing deals for products such as blankets, calculators and toys. Restaurants were doing brisk business in shark-fin soup and other delicacies. Hotels were overbooked.

These days, the mood in Yiwu is depressed.

Storefronts for exporters that have gone out of business are boarded up. Rows of sleeping migrant workers fill the sidewalks. On a recent weekday morning, people lined up for the rice porridge being given away by Lin Ruxin, who owns a local printing factory.

Lin, 50, said he opened the food station in early January when he began to notice that more and more people were gathering in front of the unemployment office and that many of them would stay there the whole day without eating. He organized a few volunteers and dipped into his savings to fund the breakfast service. They begin cooking at 10 p.m. and work all night until about 6 a.m., when they start giving away the food. Each serving also includes some pickled vegetables and two buns.

"I feel for them," Lin said. "When I was a child, I went through the Cultural Revolution, and when I started my own business, I also had a hard time. Everywhere I went, I got knocked down. This is the situation the migrant workers are in now."

Many of the people in the food line are down to their last 10 or 20 yuan, the equivalent of a few dollars, and have hawked all their worldly possessions. They eat crouched in corners or on the street as cars whiz by.

"To be honest, the porridge is tasteless and the buns have no nutrition, but when you have no money, everything tastes delicious as long as it can fill you up," said Li, who does not even have enough money for the bus fare to get him back home to Guizhou, a province about 950 miles away, in China's southwest.

Nearby are Wu Kailing, 40, his wife, Wen Shengju, 40, and their daughter, Wu Ying, 14. They had not been able to find any work in their home province of Sichuan and saw something on television about this city's small commodities market. But they have not found work, and they have used up their life savings.

Wu said that his family has one-third of an acre of land at home and that that is not enough to feed his family, "so going home, we'd still go hungry." His one hope is for a better life for his daughter. "I don't care what she does in the future -- I just hope she won't be like us. I feel we are not treated fairly."

When Lin started the food line two months ago, the 1,200 portions he was giving away each day would last about two hours. These days every bit is often gone in 45 minutes.

Researchers Crissie Ding in Yiwu and Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.


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