Migrant workers in China

Yesterday a very nice lady sent me an email to ask me if I would be interested in writing a blog post about a video. I normally don’t do collaborations but I decided to take a look at the video before replying. The video is called The end of the Chinese miracle, it was done by the Financial Times and talks about the migrant workers in China, people originally from rural areas who move to the cities to work. These people contributed enormously to China’s economy, as basically everybody working in the millions of factories are migrant workers. This is the video:

Why would I be interested in writing about migrant workers? Well, because I’ve met many of them. When I first moved to Suzhou it was to work in a Spanish-owned factory that manufactured plastic products. I worked in the office as an assistant, translator, and girl-for-everything. The factory had around 180 workers and I think all of them were from outside of Suzhou. When Chinese New Year arrived, the administration manager would help them all buy tickets to go back to their hometowns.

As the video begins explaining, since the 1980s millions of Chinese people moved to the cities to find better paid jobs in factories (the biggest migration in the history of the world!). They would work there for several years, sending money to their families, and saving to go back when they were older. They lived in communal dormitories, ate in the factory’s canteen and worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. But now, there are less people moving to the cities and less people willing to work in the factories.

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Factories usually want young people and they pay the minimum salary. Workers used to be fine with the long hours, because working 12 hours a day means you get 4 hours of paid extra time. Once I asked a factory worker, a girl younger than me, if she was ok working on Saturdays. “Of course”, she said, “I’m here to earn and save money, not to have fun”. She was even mad one time that the factory decided to close for one holiday; she wanted to work because the wage paid for worked holidays is 3 times the normal wage.

But now, even though the mininum salary is raised around 15% each year (at least in Jiangsu province), factories are having a hard time finding workers. I had a supplier who every year, after Chinese New Year, would tell me the same: our orders might have to be delayed, he had no workers, most of them didn’t go back to work after the holiday and he was having a hard time finding new people. His explanation was: “Young people don’t want to work hard anymore”. According to the video, some companies are “importing” Vietnamese workers to work in the factories. This is of course illegal and can be dangerous for the workers, but they can earn a better salary than in Vietnam.

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In Suzhou, many factories have closed and they have been transformed in malls or sport courts. As the foreign factory manager says in the video, many companies also closed down because of the diminishing demand for goods. Because of the economic crisis, people buy less things, and they want them to be cheap. China’s role as the “factory of the world” is ending. Chinese workers don’t work for a bowl of rice anymore. As I said, basic wages increase 15% every year. Many foreign companies that came to China attracted by the cheap labour are moving now to other countries, especially in South East Asia, where salaries are much lower than in China. Check the tags of your Zara, H&M, Gap or similar fast fashion clothes. They probably say Made in Bangladesh, Cambodia or Pakistan, when 10-20 years ago they would all be Made in China.

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The video also tells the particular story of a migrant worker from Hunan province who has been working in Shenzhen for many years and supporting his family back home. The factory where he worked for ten years closed and now he can only find odd jobs, washing dishes and things like that. He is thinking about going back to the countryside, and he says many others also went back home.

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If you are interested about these issues happening in China, watch the video! It is very informative, well done and it only lasts for 15 minutes! Or, if you prefer reading, the Financial Times has some in-depth articles about Chinese migrant workers.

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