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Migrant Workers on a Long Vacation

From Cover, issue no. 398, December 15, 2008
Translated by Liu Peng
Original article

Ren Jianzhu, a village head in Sichuan's Dazhou region, has been keeping count of the number of home-comers of late.

Seven more villagers have returned on December 10 alone, purportedly on a "long vacation", adding the number of returnees to 137 thus far.

Over the past months, nearly half of the village's 317 people who used to work in the cities and other provinces have come home.

Waves of Home-Coming
Ren recalled among the firsts to return was a farmer-turned-migrant worker named Ren Guoqiang, 37, who had four years ago moved his entire family to a city in another province.

"Upon returning in late September, he told me that his boss let him off for the week-long National Day holidays; but he and his family stay on ever since," Ren said.

By late October, more and more migrant workers returned, though most of them claimed to be "on vacation". It was then the village head suspected something was amiss.

His suspicion was confirmed during a recent meeting in Beijing, where he met village heads and administrators from other provinces like Hubei, Anhui, and Hunan. These provinces are all major workforce "exporter" in China.

"I feel that the village population has suddenly boomed; it's getting crowded and bustling with activities, more so than during the Spring festival," said another village head Qiu Dehua, from Hubei's Xiaogan region.

For Qiu's village, 177 out of 515 villagers who used to hold jobs elsewhere had returned. The village only has a population of some 1,300; nearly each family has one or two members as migrant workers.

Qiu learned at the Beijing meeting - which was held on Dec 7 to discuss rural economy development - that in Hubei alone, of the nine million migrant workers "exported" across the country, 1.4 million had returned to their respective villages.

In the neighbouring Anhui, home-coming migrant workers reached some 400,000; whereas in Sichuan, the number reached some 280,000 as per official data by Nov 18.

Ren from Sichuan claimed: " The figure must be outdated. In some villages, over half the migrant workers have returned."

Ren recalled that in previous years, these migrant workers would only come home once a year, a few days ahead of the Spring Festival, the Chinese lunar new year celebration, which usually took place in late January or February each year.

"This time around, the home-coming tide has started three months earlier. My village usually has only about 500 residents, the sudden influx now adds some 300 people more," said Ren.

He added the village had assumed a festive mood, as many returnees who had been away for a long time were busy catching up with friends and relatives through feasting and drinking sessions.

Pressure on Rural Employment
Both Ren and Qiu, in their 50s, said this was the first time they had seen such a massive wave of home-coming of migrant workers.

They learned that the scenario was related to the on-going financial crisis, and that factories in Chinese coastal cities were shutting down, thus migrant workers who lost their jobs had left for home.

Village heads in the countryside, however, were alarmed and worried over the future livelihoods of these home-comers.

Qiu on his own had conducted a survey, and he found that of the 338 villagers still out there, 230 were planning to return. "They are either unemployed or semi-employed. Some of them still want to try their luck, so they stay on in the cities, surviving on subsidies between RMB 200 and RMB 300 a month," he added.

"Local companies in the village or nearby town are also facing a though time, they may be able to absorb a dozen or so workers at most. But our village alone has a few hundred more people needing jobs," lamented Qiu, adding he had helped a few to find new jobs with salaries some 30% lower than when the migrant workers were in coastal Wenzhou.

While attending the meeting in Beijing, Qiu took time to survey the job market there, and was disappointed with deserted construction sites and low demand in the fields of furniture making and interior renovation.

Businessmen from his home town, who used to own furniture and textile factories in Beijing and Dongguan, had also closed their plants.

Ren and Qiu said economists in Beijing told village heads that unless companies in China's coastal region were revived, migrant workers would have to stay home. 

Village heads now faced the uphill challenge of generating new businesses and jobs while avoiding market risks and policy retrictions.

Ren said in October, he tried to help a returnee to set up a pig farm, thinking that the project involved few risks after careful market survey.

However, in early December, the RMB30,000 newly-built farm was forcefully demolished by local land administration on the ground that the farm was built on agricultural land without prior authorization.

After that, Ren thought of promoting farming among returned villagers. "I am working out the costs and returns, to show the villagers whether it is more worthwhile to farm at home or to look for jobs elsewhere."

However, his enthusiasm was dampened while in Beijing. He said one expert told him: "The labor force in rural agricultural sector is in surplus, the sector has little capacity to absorb more labors."

Another worry was that many returnees had lost touch with agricultural skills, especially the second-generation migrant workers who were born and bred in the cities, who never had a day in their life done farm work.

In the past, land possession in the countryside would always be a final shelter for migrant workers if they failed to eke out a living in the cities. Over time, however, the situation changed.

Ren said more family disputes took place in his village of late, mainly related to land. "Some are blood brothers. For instance, the little brother, while away in the city, had subcontracted the land to his elder brother. Now he wants it back but the older one refused, and conflicts flare," he added.

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