By Gabriel Crossley
BEIJING (Reuters) – Migrant workers Zhang Jianpeng and his wife returned to Beijing in late April after waiting in their home village in northern Shanxi Province for almost three months for the COVID-19 epidemic to subside in China.
When they returned to the city, the restaurant where they both worked was long closed and neither could find a new job.
They have used up their 30,000 yuan (US $ 4,202) savings, and Zhang is now in debt using one credit card to pay off another.
“One month was fine. But after the second month, the third, there was no money left,” the burly 28-year-old told Reuters.
He has two young daughters who are looked after by their grandparents in the village in an economically depressed old coal mining area.
There are no jobs there, and if you have spent the last part of your savings looking for work in the capital, it would be a bitter pill to return destitute.
“How could I meet my parents?” Zhang asked.
China has an estimated 280 million rural migrant workers, like Zhang. They may have been the hardest hit by the economic impact of the corona virus, and many are excluded from unemployment insurance.
In the first quarter, China’s economy contracted for the first time in decades. Due to the uncertainties caused by the global pandemic, China’s communist leaders decided against setting a growth target this year. [nL4N2D40KJ]
The nation’s 1.4 billion unemployment rate was 6% in April, but many analysts say that actual unemployment must be far higher. [nL4N2BV0WT]
Zhang and his wife rent a cheap apartment, a three-hour bus ride from Beijing, where he wanders through old places every day looking for a job.
“Work is hard to find this year. Too hard,” said Zhang. “And if you find it, wages are too low.”
He expected restaurant wages to drop by a third, and if he was lucky enough to find a job, he would probably only get about 4,000 yuan ($ 560) a month.
New guidelines require migrant workers to be given equal access to employment services and that allowances for those returning home are increased. But many like Zhang have received little help so far.
Dealing with unemployment is a top priority for Beijing. While the government emphasizes support for migrant workers, some analysts say they receive less attention because they are less likely to cause political problems.
Unemployed college graduates and laid-off urban workers are more concerned, said Dan Wang of the Economist Intelligence Unit. The latter are more likely to pay mortgages and could affect the property market, she said.
There has been no apparent increase in worker protests, but judging by social media contributions, “discontent is growing,” said Geoff Crothall of the China Labor Bulletin.
Prime Minister Li Keqiang promised more help for small and medium-sized businesses that create the most jobs in China in an annual report released on Friday. The government expects 9 million new urban jobs to be created this year – the lowest goal since 2013.
When life returns to normal, “the economy will also flourish and the income of rural migrant workers will definitely continue to increase,” said Zhao Chenxin, deputy secretary general of the National Development and Reform Commission, on Sunday in a press conference.
But he said most of the new jobs would go to military graduates and veterans, while some would go to migrant workers.
“The hard truth is that unemployed land migrants are much less of a problem or threat from a political point of view than unemployed urban residents,” said Louis Kuijs of Oxford Economics.
($ 1 = 7.1398 Chinese yuan renminbi)
(Additional reporting by Tingshu Wang; editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)