February 28, 2020 / 2:59 PM / a month ago

Slow return of China's migrant workers hobbles factory restarts

SHENZHEN, China (Reuters) - China’s manufacturers are struggling to find enough workers to fill factory floors as the regular post-Lunar New Year labor migration trickles rather than flows, slowing the restart of the world’s No.2 economy amid the coronavirus crisis.

FILE PHOTO: Workers wearing masks walk outside their dormitory, in an electronics manufacturing factory in Shanghai, China, as the country is hit by an outbreak of a new coronavirus, February 12, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

This week, the southern economic powerhouse province of Guangdong stripped all of the 256 temperature and ID checkpoints on its expressways in a bid to speed the return of workers.

The provincial government has organized 867 inter-provincial charter buses for more than 14,000 workers, it said on Friday.

Yet the return remains sluggish.

While almost 200 million people across China are believed to have headed back to where they work during the last two weeks in February, according to Reuters calculations based on government data, many remain trapped in quarantine or unable to secure proper paperwork.

In Guangdong, 83.7 per cent of enterprises have returned to work, the provincial government said on Friday. In Shenzhen’s technology district of Nanshan, 97 of 100 major industrial firms had resumed work as of Sunday, the local government said.

Yet businesses continue to be hurt by the disruption of an already tight labor market. A survey of 577 companies in China by the European Union Chamber of Commerce and the German Chamber of Commerce found almost half reporting staff shortages and almost a third struggling with compliance requirements.

At the Jiangmen O.T.P. cosmetics factory in Guangdong’s Jiangmen city, around a third of the 200 employees have yet to return, said Huang Wenchang, who works in sales.

“While the factory reopened on February 14, many workers remain trapped in their villages,” Huang said.

The company is busy producing packaging for disinfectant bottles, where demand has rocketed.

“We’re waiting for our people to get back, but in the meantime we’ve hired some university students stuck while school is shut who need temporary work,” he said.

The Shenzhen-based factories of one European manufacturer are operating at just 30% of their 2,100-staff capacity, its manager told Reuters, declining to be identified given the sensitivity of the matter.

WORKERS FACE CHOICE

Workers frustrated with a delayed reopening and subject to a 14-day quarantine if they returned face a choice, the manager said.

“Do I sit for two weeks in Guangdong province at high cost? There’s nothing I can buy and there’s no housing. Or I stay in my hometown in Sichuan and start something new?”

Shenzhen and other Guangdong province cities are now allowing businesses to return to work and face inspections later, but the manager fears some migrant workers will not come back.

“I wonder whether we will not see an even more pronounced worker shortage after this,” he said.

Mainland China had 327 new confirmed cases of coronavirus infections on Thursday, the country’s National Health Commission said on Friday, down from 433 cases a day earlier and the lowest since Jan. 23.

Just nine occurred outside the epicenter of Hubei province, in central China, which is a major source of migrant workers and has been in virtual lockdown for weeks.

TRAPPED AT HOME

Company managers said they sympathized with the plight of their workers trapped in Hubei province and elsewhere, but also said they have to get on with business.

“About 15 per cent of our staff are from Hubei, and not one of them is back,” said Tony Zhou, CEO of Dongguan Guoli T-Cloud Intelligence Technology, which employs 4,000 people and makes electronic educational supplies.

“A lot of them are barely able to leave their homes,” he said.

“If they can make it back, there’s a job for them, but we’re going to have to hire others to pick up the slack in the meantime.”

Getting paperwork approved is a common problem for returning migrant workers, said Ice Huang, a spokeswoman for the Inno Community Development Organisation, an NGO supporting laborers.

A woman surnamed Huang, who normally works in textiles in Dongguan, remains stuck in her hometown in Hubei, where she says government agencies are reluctant to give her approval to get back to work.

“They just keep pushing the ball around, fearing that if they stamp my papers and something happens, they’re the ones who will be blamed,” she said by phone, declining to give her full name.

Her husband remains with her, and has seen his job as a technician at a factory filled by someone else, she said.

Reporting by David Kirton; Editing by Tony Munroe and Mike Collett-White

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