Migrant workers, who moved from China’s villages to its big cities, were a secret weapon building the economy. Now many see few options.
When Zhang left his village in northeastern China a decade ago to work as a welder in a big city, jobs were plentiful. He earned about $50 a day and managed to save most of it.
But this year he has yet to find a welding job. After he moved to the southern metropolis Guangzhou in March, his only paycheck, roughly $820 for 40 days, came from selling weight-loss products on a social media app. He had to respond to customer inquiries at all hours. Now he’s not working at all and has run out of his savings. He pays $55 a month in rent for a tiny studio apartment but pinches every other penny. The morning we talked, he said he’d had a bowl of instant noodles, one of two meals he eats a day.
Things wouldn’t be much better back in his village. Mr. Zhang’s family grows corn on a tiny patch of land, generating about $200 a year. His grandparents, both 74, still farm; each gets a pension of less than $15 a month. His father is a migrant worker in Beijing. His mother, unemployed, is looking for a job.
At 28, Mr. Zhang, who asked that I use only his surname, is not married and does not plan to have children. “I don’t dare to think too far ahead,” he said. “I just want to earn some money to keep myself alive.” He said he would go home soon if he could not find work.
Migrant workers were for years the secret weapon of China’s economic rise. They left their villages for the big cities to earn a living and send money home, even if it meant that they had to work long hours, lived in cramped dormitories and rarely saw their loved ones.
They built China’s skyscrapers, highways and high-speed railways, even though some senior officials called them “low-end population.” Their cheap wages helped China become the world’s biggest manufacturer and make the country’s megacities hum.
Now that times are tough and jobs harder to find, China’s roughly 300 million migrant workers, with flimsy social benefits, have little to fall back on. They don’t enjoy the same health insurance, unemployment and retirement benefits as city-born people, as threadbare as their safety net is. Once migrant workers pass their prime working age, they are expected to go back to their home villages so they won’t become burdens to the cities.
Migrant workers are among the most vulnerable groups in China’s economic downturn because real estate and infrastructure construction jobs are harder to find. Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, conceded in a speech in 2020, “When the economy experiences fluctuations, the first group to be affected are the migrant workers.”
He said more than 20 million migrant workers, unable to find work, had returned to their villages during the 2008 financial crisis. In 2020, he said, nearly 30 million migrant workers had to stay home, and out of the reach of jobs, because of the pandemic.
It’s hard to gauge how today’s troubles are affecting migrant workers. The national unemployment rate, as calculated by the National Bureau of Statistics, accounts only for urban unemployment, which stands at just above 5 percent and is believed to be underestimated. The average monthly income of migrant workers was $630 in 2022, or less than half the income of those working for the government. And that data is flawed because it includes only months when a worker has a job.
Mr. Xi said in his speech that the mass return of migrant workers in 2008 and 2020 had not caused any social problems because they “have land and houses back in their home villages so they can return to cultivate the land, have food to eat, and work on something.”
But the prospect of moving back to the villages is often bleak and even scary, especially for younger migrant workers who have spent their adult lives in the cities. They can see what awaits them. Their parents and grandparents may need to work until they physically cannot anymore and hesitate to seek medical care. They usually do not have unemployment benefits, and they cannot rely on their families, as some urban youths do, because their parents’ and grandparents’ pensions are “only enough to buy salt,” as another migrant worker, Hunter Ge, told me.
“For Chinese, especially in the countryside, there’s no such thing called retirement,” he said. His grandfather is 90 and cleans pig manure for a farm every day in the central province of Henan.
Mr. Ge left his village at age 17 and started working on construction sites and in factories. He had benefits during the six years he worked at Foxconn, a contract manufacturer for Apple. But when he was out of work this year, he could not get any unemployment benefits, which is not uncommon as local governments are deeply in debt. Now 34, he still works 10-hour shifts at another Apple contract manufacturer and lives in a dormitory.
The morning we spoke he had just gotten off a shift that started at 7:30 p.m. and ended at 7 a.m. He had worked for two weeks without a day off because of the demand for Apple’s newest iPhone.
He feels he cannot go home to his village and do nothing while his parents and grandfather are still working. “It’s just not appropriate,” he said.
Most of those I spoke to asked for anonymity for fear of retribution from the government. No doubt, they are better off and more conscious about their rights than other migrant workers. If anything, most people from the countryside are more reserved about their conditions than the young people I interviewed.
“My ideal country is one where the people live in peace and prosperity, where there is food safety, freedom of speech, justice, a media that can expose injustices, a five-day, eight-hour workweek for workers,” said Mr. Zhang, the unemployed welder. “If these can be achieved, I will support whoever is in power, regardless of their party or how long they govern.”
The other reality facing migrant workers is that returning to their villages to earn money farming is not an option, as Mr. Xi said it was. There is not enough land waiting for them. They are referred to as “surplus rural labor forces” in China’s official and academic discourse for a reason.
“Only people who couldn’t find jobs would do farming,” said Guan, a migrant worker in the northwestern province of Gansu, “because income from farming is too low.”
Mr. Guan, 30, worked as a real estate agent in Shenzhen for five years before moving back to his home village at the end of 2019. Now he operates excavator machines. He lives on construction sites in temporary houses made of sheet metal, works 10 hours a day and is paid only for days he worked, about $50 a day with no benefits.
He wants to make as much money as possible while he is young. He also knows, based on his many WeChat message groups for projects he has worked on, that the number of construction projects is dwindling, and that some workers are not getting paid. Retirement, he feels, may never come.
“To be honest, deep down I feel lost,” he said. “All I can say is that for the time being, I’ll save as much money as possible. As for what the future holds, it’s really hard to say. I might not even live to see that age.”