BEIJING—Migrant workers Zhang Jianpeng and his wife returned to Beijing in late April, after nearly three months in lockdown at their home village in northern Shanxi province waiting for China’s COVID-19 epidemic to subside.
By the time they got back to the city, the restaurant where they had both worked had long since closed, and neither has been able to find a new job.
They have used up their savings of 30,000 yuan ($4,202) and Zhang is now in debt, using one credit card to pay off another.
“One month was fine. But after the second month, into the third, there was no money left,” the burly 28-year-old told Reuters.
He has two young daughters being looked after by their grandparents back in the village, in an economically depressed old coal mining area.
There are no jobs there, and having spent the last of their savings while looking for work in the capital, going back penniless would be a bitter pill to swallow.
“How could I face my parents?” Zhang asked.
In China, there are an estimated 280 million rural migrant workers, like Zhang. They have been, perhaps, the hardest-hit by the economic impact of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, and many are excluded from unemployment insurance.
In the first quarter, China’s economy contracted for the first time in decades. Due to uncertainties cast by the global pandemic, which started in Wuhan, China’s communist leaders decided against setting a growth target this year.
Surveyed unemployment in the nation of 1.4 billion was 6 percent in April, but many analysts say true unemployment must be far higher.
Zhang and his wife rent a cheap apartment a three-hour bus ride from Beijing proper, where he spends every day wandering through old haunts looking for a job.
“Work is hard to find this year. Too hard,” said Zhang. “And if you find it the wages are too low.”
He reckoned restaurant wages have slumped by a third, and if he were lucky enough to find a job he would likely be paid only around 4,000 yuan ($560) per month.
New policies call for migrant workers to be given equal access to employment services, and expanded subsistence allowances for those who return home. But many like Zhang have received little help so far.
While the communist regime emphasizes support for migrant workers, some analysts say they get less attention because they are less likely to create political problems.
Bigger concerns are unemployed college graduates and laid-off urban workers, said Dan Wang, of the Economist Intelligence Unit. The latter are more likely to have mortgages to pay, and so could affect the real estate market, she said.
There has not been any obvious increase in worker protests yet, but judging by postings on social media “discontent is growing,” said Geoff Crothall, of China Labour Bulletin.
“The hard truth is that, from a policymaker perspective, unemployed rural migrants are much less of a concern or threat than unemployed urban people,” said Louis Kuijs, of Oxford Economics.
($1 = 7.1398 Chinese yuan renminbi)
By Gabriel Crossley
NTD News contributed to this report