Labor shortage in China reflects shifting situation

Updated: 2011-02-19 17:45
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BEIJING - After a tiring journey, Zhang Zhifeng, a migrant worker from the mountainous Guizhou province in Southwest China appeared at a job fair with his huge red suitcase.

Zhang, 27, went there directly from the railway station after arriving at Guangzhou, the capital of the prosperous Guangdong province in South China.

"I considered leaving the case in my friend's home first, but as they (employers) are now in shortage of laborers, I thought maybe it wouldn't take long for me to find a job here," he said.

Two hours later, Zhang signed a contract with a computer factory, which promises to give him 1,800 yuan ($273) a month, as well as a dormitory with an air-conditioner and an annual bonus that is as much as his monthly salary.

Zhang is among the millions of migrant workers in China, who, after the long vacation back home for the Spring Festival, the most important Chinese festival for reunions of family members, are returning to cities to look for new jobs.


Many of the traditionally prosperous regions, like the Yangtze and the Pearl river deltas, however, are experiencing labor shortages after the holidays.

In Guangdong, more than one million workers are needed, which counts for about five percent of the total number of laborers in the province, said Ou Zhenzhi, head of the human resources and social security department of the Guangdong provincial government.

In Yiwu of East China's Zhejiang province, which is a well-known manufacturing hub for small commodities, representatives of 11 companies which needed nearly 1,000 workers went to northwestern China to seek workers, but they brought back only eight workers.

The Golden Hawk Craftwork Co Ltd needed 800 workers, but only 100 are now working in the factory. "We have received lots of orders," said Zeng Jianming, the general manager of the company.

Like many other companies, they started looking for workers on Feb 4, or the second day of the Chinese Lunar New Year. At that time, the labor market was still hard to get into. Staff from labor-seeking companies stood at the side of the road, holding billboards with employment information.

"Once two or three workers were found, we sent them immediately to the factory," Zeng said, complaining that without enough laborers, they couldn't get new orders.


The population of migrant workers in China stand between 220 to 230 million, among whom 140 million had worked outside their hometowns.

The labor shortage has been felt in the country since seven or eight years ago. Lu Jiehua, a professor of sociology with the elite Peking University, attributed the shortage to the development of inland areas.

"In the past, the prosperous Yangtze River Delta could create lucrative jobs for migrant workers," said Lu. "But now, the economic level in Southwest China's Sichuan province and Chongqing municipality, as well as in North China's Hebei province and Tianjin municipality, rose dramatically, diverting a large number of migrant workers."

Many large enterprises have also set up branches in central and western parts of China, which have created more job opportunities for migrant workers in their hometowns. Foxconn, the world's largest electronics contractor, for instance, opened a plant in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, last October and one more in Zhengzhou, the capital of central China's populous Henan province, in December. Both Sichuan and Henan are traditional labor bases in China.

On the other hand, the change in the mindset of migrant workers has also affected their decisions about where to work. Apart from the salary, self-improvement was another consideration for migrants.

Peng Jiulin, 22, was not eager to find a job in Hangzhou, the capital city of East China's Zhejiang province.

"I want to work in an automobile store," said the man from the countryside of Sichuan. "In my hometown, more and more people have bought their own car. I hope I could learn something from the job and then go back to start my own career."

Peng said he could have landed a job with a higher salary but he refused. "For me, it is the priority to learn more. We shouldn't be short-sighted," he said.

Children are also a reason why migrants refuse to work far away from home. People born in the 1980s used to be the main force of migrants. But as they entered marrying age and started having children, they became reluctant to leave home.

Wei Dongwei from Luyi county of Henan had been working in Yiwu for six years. This year, his company promised to raise his salary to 2,600 yuan a month, but he decided to stay in his hometown to remain with his four-year-old son.

"In 2009 when I came back during the Spring Festival, my son didn't recognize me," he said bitterly. "I tried to have him sleep with me, but he cried."

This year, Wei found his son extremely grumpy. "Other kids in his kindergarten sneered at him, saying he was abandoned by his parents."

"If I leave him again, he would be ruined." A survey by the All-China Women's Federation showed that China has about 58 million left-behind children in rural areas, of whom 40 million are below age 14.


To retain workers like Wei, the hometown of the migrants has taken measures to create job opportunities. In Luyi county, a clothing factory promised the same salary for migrants that they would receive in Guangdong. It also offered free accommodations and dinner, as well as social security subsidies and an annual bonus.

Wei Dongwei learned that he could find a job in the county seat about five kilometers away from his home, which offers a monthly salary of 2,300 yuan. This reinforced his determination to stay at home.

To lure more laborers, enterprises in eastern China raised salaries for migrants, as well.

Statistics from the employment administrative bureau of Yiwu, Zhejiang, showed that the lowest salary of ordinary workers there last year was 1,200 yuan to 1,500 yuan, which had since risen to 1,500 yuan to 2,000 yuan this year.

The Langsha Group, the leader in the hosiery industry, raised the salaries of workers by 20 to 30 percent, according to Weng Rongjin, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the company. Based in Yiwu, the company also encouraged 20 senior workers to introduce new laborers from their hometowns. Their travel expenditures would be reimbursed and they could receive an award of 200 to 300 yuan for each new worker they found.

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More workers may be returning to the cities they had worked outside of their hometowns after Thursday, China's traditional Lantern Festival, or the last day of the Spring Festival.

In the meantime, others might pursue new options. For these groups, the competition between enterprises vying for laborers could lead to improvement in the working conditions.

Wu Yun, 25, had been haunting the recruitment fair for three days but refrained from signing a contract. "I am not worry at all. This year, the situation is optimistic and I want to find a job with the highest pay and the best working condition," said the man from Southwest China's Yunnan province.