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Sour homecoming for Chinese migrants

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Steve Chiotakis: It is, after all, the Chinese New Year. That’s a big deal over there. It’s the one time of the year that millions of Chinese workers head home to their villages. They’re migrants who’ve gone to bigger cities for work. This year, though, the souring global economy has made jobs much more scarce, and some will stay home for good. Here’s Marketplace’s Scott Tong.


Scott Tong: Imagine the entire adult population of the U.S. on the move, suitcases and all. That’s the Chinese New Year crush all over the country.

For those jammed in airports and train stations, it’s normally a hopeful time. To return home to see family, eat and drink, and swap stories with other migrants about whose salary went up the most. But this year feels different.

This is southeastern Jiangxi province, one of China’s poorest. Forty-five-year-old Huang Hannian just returned from working at a clothing factory in a big coastal city.

Huang Hannian (voice of interpreter): We used to earn a base salary of $200 a month. But now we’re paid based on how much we produce. So I quit. I even thought about writing the boss a nasty note.

Labor activist Apo Leong hears a lot of cases like this. Factory bosses get squeezed, so they squeeze their workers. They either lay them off or they abuse them.

Apo Leong: You talk while you work, $5 punishment. And every morning they have to line up. If you do not follow the line, they will impose a fine, or withhold wages for one day.

The government says average migrant pay fell last year from about $45 a week to $40. And for the first time perhaps ever in China, the number of blue collar migrants is now dropping.

Take the case of 40-year-old Fang Qiaolin.

Fang Qiaolin (voice of interpreter): My factory salary fell from $300 a month to half that. I left, as did most of my coworkers. I’m moving home for good, to take care of my 12-year-old.

But others will return next week to the big cities and try their luck again, as they do every year.

Again, activist Apo Leong:

Leong: When the workers come back from their holidays, they may not find the factory gate open to them again, if there’s no fresh orders. This is a big threat to the social stability.

And that is what Beijing fears: millions of unemployed, angry workers. So the government has hurried up a $600 billion stimulus package to try to cushion the blow in rural Jiangxi and all across China.

I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

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