BEIJING/GUANGZHOU (Reuters) - It’s supposed to be a period of happy reunions, fireworks, feasting with family and gifts of cash stuffed into auspicious red envelopes.
But the chill winds blowing through the global economy are putting a damper on this Chinese Lunar New Year, especially for the millions of migrant workers who toil in factories and building sites, and who only get to go home this time each year.
Some 188 million people are expected to flock home by rail during China’s annual “spring rush” this year, an average of 4.7 million trips made daily, mainly from developed coastal regions to villages and cities in the poorer heartland.
Now, with factories closing and consumer spending shriveling, what should be a joyful occasion has soured as the world’s most populous nation’s economy starts to slow, hit by falling demand in major markets in Europe and North America.
“A lot of factories are doing badly so many people are heading back (home) early,” said Li Jinli, waiting with his wife at a station in the southern city of Guangzhou for a train to their home village in Guizhou province, 15 hours away.
“We’ve been on holiday for a month now, business has been very bad,” added Li, 39, a deeply wrinkled metal factory worker who said he was laid off twice in the past year.
“To find a good job is very troublesome,” he said. “And I’m very worried about finding work when I return.”
Li is one of around 200 million migrant workers in China — greater than the population of Brazil — who have provided the flood of cheap labor underpinning the country’s formidable export engine and proliferation of China-made goods worldwide.
Yet the closure of tens of thousands of export firms on China’s seaboard has cost an estimated 10 million migrant workers their jobs in recent months, worrying Communist Party leaders who depend on strong growth to underpin their political legitimacy.
After decades of solid economic growth, China is facing falling demand for its products which has triggered factory closures, sparked protests and raised fears of popular unrest.
This week China reported that exports and imports fell in December for the second month in a row, showing how badly the financial crisis is hitting the world’s third-largest economy and putting Beijing under pressure to do more to protect jobs.
The situation is especially grim in the southern export powerhouse of Guangdong, known as the “factory of the world.”
Last year, 62,400 companies went bust in the province and about 600,000 migrant workers left Guangdong for good. According to its deputy governor, 5 million more could leave this year.
“There’s a lot of reasons for increased potential for social unrest in China this year. Whenever there’s significantly higher unemployment, people chasing fewer jobs, that’s a recipe for social unrest,” said Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesman for China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based rights group which closely tracks labor issues in China.
China is particularly worried about farmers, who make up the bulk of migrant workers and who are already at the wrong end of the country’s yawning rich-poor divide.
Faltering economic conditions have raised the prospect of growth falling below 8 percent, which the government regards as a benchmark to create enough jobs to sop up excess labor and guarantee social stability.
“We are most worried about two issues: one is that of migrant workers returning to their villages, and the other is employment for graduates,” Premier Wen Jiabao said last month.
At Beijing’s central train station, many of the people Wen is worried about rush to get home ahead of the holiday, which starts on January 26.
Thousands of migrant workers, wrapped up in thin coats and dusty hats against the bitter cold, wait patiently for their turn to buy tickets, or look after bundles of belongings while others sort out their travel plans.
“The economy is very unstable now,” said Wu Keliang, 33, a construction worker from Dazhou in the southwestern province of Sichuan. “I’m worried about what will happen after New Year. I know there are policies to help the economy, but I’ve not seen them working,” he added in his Sichuanese drawl.
At least Wu has a job to come back to.
Wang Lihong, another construction worker, has already decided that come the end of the Spring Festival, he will not be returning to Beijing from his home in the frozen northeast close to the North Korean border.
“There’s no point,” said Wang, standing around a pitiful looking pile of possessions stuffed into muddy sacks and plastic buckets. “There’s no work here. I’m not sure what I’m going to do after the New Year.”
Inland provinces which provide the bulk of the migrant workforce are already noticing a swell in returnees.
In November, the central province of Henan, which contributes significantly to the country’s army of migrant workers, reported a big rise, the official Xinhua news agency said.
Landlocked and heavily populated Henan is seeing an average of 60,000 migrant workers returning to their homes from outside the province every day, far higher than figures reported in previous years, the agency said.
Henan has 21 million migrant workers, more than 11 million of whom work outside the province, the report added.
China’s State Council in December highlighted the severity of the situation, calling on local governments to provide greater support for migrant workers as a “pressing and important” task.
Provincial governments and ministries were urged to create more jobs for returnees, provide vocational training, cut taxes and offer loans for them to start their own small businesses.
But some labor experts say poorer regions including backward agricultural communities could struggle to sponge up hordes of restless migrant workers.
“I think certainly some local governments in returning areas will have problems coping with the influx,” said Crothall, of China Labor Bulletin.
But Crothall added this reverse migration could ease given the pragmatic nature of many workers. Left without a social security net and the financial burden of supporting their families, many might eventually drift back to the factory belts.
For some though, hopelessness runs deep for now.
“I’m not sure what I’ll do back home, but I don’t plan to come back,” said Liu Bing, a 24-year-old worker in a Guangdong battery factory, who said he had become disillusioned by the grind of life on the production line and his own grim prospects.
“I’d like to try some different kind of work, perhaps go back to my old job as a driver,” said the Xian native. “It’s more free.”
Editing by Megan Goldin