China’s most desperate migrant workers jostle for temporary jobs – losing means they sleep outside and stop eating

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This is the second story in a three-part series about China’s employment environment, from migrant workers and fresh graduates to new job sources and the private sector.

For less than a cup of coffee at most major chains, a migrant worker in a major Chinese city can rent a bed for the night. But oftentimes, that is contingent on finding work and getting paid that day.

In the southeastern outskirts of Beijing, amid a record-breaking heatwave scorching the capital, migrant workers starved of both food and jobs still venture out to make a living in the sweltering sun.

Wang Ke, 36, is among those who haven’t had a full stomach in a while. He and his band of fellow job-hunters never pass up a chance to ask people, “Do you need workers?”

But the group too often returns in disappointment, wondering again when they might get their next meal, and if they will even have a roof over their head that night. Beds generally cost between 25 yuan (US$3.45) and 30 yuan a night.

“A job comes by only every few days, and a group of people rush to seize it,” Wang, originally from the central province of Henan, said from Majuqiao, once the capital city’s largest labour service market, where employment agencies and recruiters shout out menial job offerings on the street, paying usually about 100 yuan (US$13.80) or so a day.

“I am willing to work any kind of odd job, but I haven’t had any luck in four days. Ninety per cent of the people here are like me. No one can make money here; being able to fill my stomach would be the most beautiful thing ever.”

People like Wang can only wander the streets at night, finding vacant places to sleep wherever they can, changing locations several times a night to areas without people – safer areas with less chance of unwanted interactions.

The current need for migrant workers may serve as a barometer for the recovery of China’s economic activities, which has gradually lost steam amid a property slump, dwindling export demand holding back China’s manufacturing sector, and dampened confidence among consumers and investors.

China’s factory activities contracted for a third straight month in June, further putting pressure on the world’s largest exporter of goods.

“The most direct reason is there aren’t jobs that suit them, as Beijing is relieved of functions non-essential to its role as China’s capital, many labour-intensive industries have moved out of Beijing, and the labour opportunities have left with them,” said Yuan Xin, a demography professor at Nankai University in Tianjin.

Beijing has been pushing for the removal of “non-essential institutions” from China’s capital to the Xiongan New Area in neighbouring Hebei province. And many lower-end manufacturing businesses have taken the brunt, slashing the need for migrant workers without technical skills.

“We are even worse off than beggars,” Wang added. “Beggars can ask for help, while we are too ashamed, and many resort to rummaging through garbage bins to survive.”

China had around 296 million migrant workers at the end of 2022, and in the first quarter of this year, their average monthly income dropped to 4,504 yuan, from a monthly average of 4,615 yuan last year, according to official statistics.

In quantifiable terms, that lost income could represent three more nights that a migrant worker spends on the streets every month, in situations comparable to Wang’s.

But the data can hardly depict the bleakness of work prospects for the older generations of migrants, who are often too old to be office-building security guards, electronics factory workers, or perhaps amusement park staff. And they’re often rejected outright for jobs that necessitate fast learning, or when a company wants staff to appear younger.

And for many migrant workers, almost exclusively rural residents, there is no end in sight to their work, as they will not be able to retire, due to a lack of savings and limited pension coverage.

Despite bleak economic growth and sluggish factory activities last year due to China’s draconian zero-Covid measures, the conditions gave rise to a surge in demand for temporary workers, including security guards, workers for Covid testing booths, and delivery workers – all of which paid relatively well, sometimes more than 10,000 yuan a month, enabling migrant workers to cash in.

“As soon as the pandemic [control measures] ended, it became difficult to find jobs,” said another migrant worker, in his forties, who declined to be identified. It had been two weeks since he found work.

“Loading work pays 150 yuan for 12 hours, and you have to bring your own meals. Even some big enterprises pay less than Beijing’s minimum wage,” which is just over 25 yuan an hour.

Before the pandemic, Wang worked in Zhejiang province and owned his own business, was a sales manager at China Mobile, and led a large team of security guards.

After nationwide restrictions were lifted, Wang decided to test his luck in Beijing. And he’s not ready to throw in the towel yet.

“No one wants to go home without having made money. Who wouldn’t want to return home with glory and triumph? ‘Until one arrives in Beijing, one does not realise the insignificance of their position,’ I want to check it out,” he said.

Meanwhile, younger temporary workers – mostly students working summer holidays – have more opportunities. But this year, as the number of youth seeking odd jobs has increased, the monthly wage has shrunk in Beijing.

“This year there are more students looking for jobs, as last year they were all locked down at home,” said a recruiting agent for youthful temporary workers, surnamed Li, whose company is near Majuqiao.

Because students can work for such short periods – often just a handful of weeks – they have less leverage to negotiate and are often paid less.

Li said the monthly compensation for stage construction workers is about 3,500 yuan this year, including bed and board, for 12 hours a day, 30 days a month, with no breaks. That’s down from the 3,800 yuan monthly average last year.

That sort of difference could equate to not sleeping in a bed nine times a month.

Further illustrating the rising struggle among jobseekers, particularly young adults, is the youth unemployment rate, which has lately been setting record highs on a monthly basis.

The jobless rate in the 16-24 age group has been on an upward trajectory since 2020 and is expected to rise further in July and August, as a record 11.58 million university graduates are set to leave campus and flood the job market this year, posing a challenge to Beijing’s post-coronavirus recovery efforts.

In May, the jobless rate among that younger demographic hit a record of 20.8 per cent, up from the previous high of 20.4 per cent in April.

The overall urban surveyed jobless rate in May, however, remained unchanged from April at 5.2 per cent. June’s figures should be released in a couple of weeks.

In the manufacturing hubs of southern China, demand for such young workers also remains ample, but incomes have declined compared with last year, due to a reduction in the overtime working hours at small and medium-sized enterprises.

“Factories offer about 15 to 17 yuan per hour for [temporary workers this year], down from last year’s 18 to 20 yuan,” according to a recruitment agent in Guangdong surnamed Li, who declined to give her full name.

While exporting manufacturers cut full-time workers and hire more temporary workers instead, to save operating costs, the cost of living expenses have barely changed, including food and accommodation.

“The main labour force in my factory is now mainly temporary workers. I pay them about 260 yuan a day for over 12 hours of work,” said Wang Jie, a manufacturer of parts for boots and shoes, in Guangdong’s Dongguan city.

He said that to save costs, he had cut most of his full-time workers to less than 20, down about two-thirds from last year,

“Before the epidemic, we used to be paid 7,000 yuan [a month] or more in peak seasons [for at least 60 hours per week], but now we make about 5,000 yuan, including a free meal,” said a worker at a listed electrical company in Guangzhou.

She also talked about how factories in migrant workers’ hinterland hometowns are seeing longer off-season stretches, making them hard to rely on for a living, which drives workers elsewhere, with wide-reaching economic implications.

“We all cherish the stable employment, especially when we hear that more and more SMEs nearby are cutting jobs,” she said.

Elsewhere, in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, sources say factories are finding it much easier to recruit temporary workers this year – even in the last couple of months as the year has gone on, and workers are generally more reluctant to leave a job midyear.

Lu Zhou, an operations director at an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) factory in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, expressed a similar assessment in his province.

In May or June of previous years, most labourers worked for fixed factories in Jiangsu, and it was very difficult to recruit workers at this time, but this year it’s been easy, he said.

“The labour cost … is about 8,000 yuan per worker. Workers can get about 5,000 yuan a month, working at least 60 hours a week, after the social security contribution,” Lu said. “One obvious change is that this year’s social security contributions [such as social insurance and taxes] have risen again.

“Many workers are reluctant to pay [into social security], and that feeling is stronger now than in previous years. Many workers probably expect that social welfare will become inadequate in a future ageing society.

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