Rural migrants suffer most amid China's unemployment misery

BEIJING (Reuters) - Migrant workers Zhang Jianpeng and his wife returned to Beijing in late April, after nearly three months in lockdown at their home village in northern Shanxi province waiting for China’s COVID-19 epidemic to subside.

Cook Zhang Jianpeng, his wife and two other migrant workers sit in the street outside recruiting agencies in a suburb of Beijing, as they browse job information on a mobile phone, having lost their jobs in the wake of China's novel coronavirus pandemic, Picture taken on May 13, 2020. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

By the time they got back to the city, the restaurant where they had both worked had long since closed, and neither has been able to find a new job.

They have used up their savings of 30,000 yuan ($4,202) and Zhang is now in debt, using one credit card to pay off another.

“One month was fine. But after the second month, into the third, there was no money left,” the burly 28-year-old told Reuters.

He has two young daughters being looked after by their grandparents back in the village, in an economically depressed old coal mining area.

There are no jobs there, and having spent the last of their savings while looking for work in the capital, going back penniless would be a bitter pill to swallow.

“How could I face my parents?” Zhang asked.

In China, there are an estimated 280 million rural migrant workers, like Zhang. They have been, perhaps, the hardest-hit by the economic impact of the coronavirus, and many are excluded from unemployment insurance.

In the first quarter, China’s economy contracted for the first time in decades. Due to uncertainties cast by the global pandemic, China’s communist leaders decided against setting a growth target this year. [nL4N2D40KJ]

Surveyed unemployment in the nation of 1.4 billion was 6% in April, but many analysts say true unemployment must be far higher. [nL4N2BV0WT]

Zhang and his wife rent a cheap apartment a three-hour bus ride from Beijing proper, where he spends every day wandering through old haunts looking for a job.

“Work is hard to find this year. Too hard,” said Zhang. “And if you find it the wages are too low.”

He reckoned restaurant wages have slumped by a third, and if he were lucky enough to find a job he would likely be paid only around 4,000 yuan ($560) per month.


New policies call for migrant workers to be given equal access to employment services, and expanded subsistence allowances for those who return home. But many like Zhang have received little help so far.

Dealing with unemployment is a top priority for Beijing, but while the government emphasises support for migrant workers, some analysts say they get less attention because they are less likely to create political problems.

Bigger concerns are unemployed college graduates and laid-off urban workers, said Dan Wang, of the Economist Intelligence Unit. The latter are more likely to have mortgages to pay, and so could affect the real estate market, she said.

There has not been any obvious increase in worker protests yet, but judging by postings on social media “discontent is growing,” said Geoff Crothall, of China Labour Bulletin.

Premier Li Keqiang, in an annual report released on Friday, promised more help for small and medium-sized firms, which generate most of China’s jobs. The government expects 9 million new urban jobs to be created this year - its lowest target since 2013.

As life returns to normal, “the economy will also start to flourish, and rural migrant workers’ incomes will definitely continue to grow,” Zhao Chenxin, vice secretary general of the National Development and Reform Commission, told a news briefing on Sunday.

But he said most new jobs would go to graduates and armed forces veterans, while a portion would go to migrant workers.

“The hard truth is that, from a policymaker perspective, unemployed rural migrants are much less of a concern or threat than unemployed urban people,” said Louis Kuijs, of Oxford Economics.

($1 = 7.1398 Chinese yuan renminbi)

Additional reporting by Tingshu Wang; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore