CHANGPING, China (Reuters) - Scarce jobs, falling wages, sputtering assembly lines and labor scams are some of the rising problems faced by millions of Chinese migrant workers struggling to weather the downturn in export hubs like Guangdong.
Twenty million workers have lost their jobs in Guangdong alone as economic growth has slumped, but flareups of social unrest have not materialized since workers began returning en masse in early February from the Chinese New Year holiday.
Migrants are focused on economic survival — scouring factory towns for jobs, lowering expectations, living frugally and awaiting an easing of the deep export slump that has shuttered thousands of factories as the global economic crisis worsens.
“It’s not long after the Chinese New Year, so many workers are still busy looking for work. Only if they fail to find work over the next few weeks and months might we see more strain,” said Liu Dejun, a labor rights activist based in Shenzhen, bordering Hong Kong.
But in typical Chinese factory towns like Changping, around three hours drive from Hong Kong, the strains are building.
Jobless migrant workers laden with baggage abound, trudging along dusty roads or slumped at kerb sides. Dingy make-shift hostels are sprouting up to accommodate jobless drifters, with large billboards advertising beds for as little as 5 yuan ($0.70) a night.
Ad-hoc job recruiters with small desks are setting up shop on street corners, while large groups of workers seem to appear out of nowhere at factory gates before recruitment drives.
“They offer 770 yuan ($112) a month here, which isn’t much, but I’m relying on working overtime to make up for this,” said a pig-tailed girl from Sichuan surnamed Xu, who was chasing a handful of jobs at the Global Green Tech Group factory along with dozens of other women. That figure is the minimum wage.
Beijing’s Communist Party leadership has issued repeated warnings that legions of idle rural workers could pose a threat to social stability.
China must guard against “hostile forces” within and outside the country working to stir up trouble among its masses of newly unemployed workers, a senior trade union official said in comments published on Wednesday.
While it appears some factories are still hiring, the supply is limited and patchy and wages have come down sharply.
“Factories have job posters but it doesn’t mean they need workers. They’ll only call us if they have an order,” said Li Gang, a jobless migrant from Hunan, who was sitting with a friend on a patch of grass smoking “Double Happiness” brand cigarettes.
For Xiao Tao, a worker from Sichuan who has toiled in factories for nine years with the goal of one day starting his own business, the new reality has been difficult to accept.
“I’m looking for a better job,” he said while chatting with a roadside job tout recruiting for a garment factory in Fujian.
“Those jobs paying 1,000 yuan (a month) aren’t much use to me. I’m looking for something close to 2,000 yuan,” he added. “I think though that eventually I might have to adjust my expectations.”
As demand for work grows, some factories and touts have begun openly recruiting for jobs paying less than the minimum wage in clear violation of labor laws.
Anecdotes are also growing of workers getting duped by job touts and “black-hearted bosses” fleeing factories and leaving workers in the lurch with months of unpaid wages.
Even for those with work, job security has been diminishing.
Smaller factories with no new orders have been asking idle staff to take days off and even to forego basic wages.
“We get no regular salary now ... we just get paid for the number of clothes we stitch — two to three yuan for each bundle of a dozen items,” said a short, dark-haired girl from Sichuan, who would only give her surname as Chen.
A woman strolling with Chen through a shopping mall during a factory shutdown period said the incentive for staying on was the free food and accommodation.
“We’ve been told by our boss that only in April or May will we get a regular wage,” she said.
Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Nick Macfie