China’s coronavirus fears curb migrant worker travel over Lunar New Year, but small factories to stay shut

He Huifeng
·4-min read

More than 100 million Chinese migrant workers will drop the decades-long tradition of returning home for the Lunar New Year holiday this year and instead stay in big cities and manufacturing hubs.

The nation’s army of migrant workers has been a crucial component in the manufacturing boom that followed China’s opening up to the world in the late 1970s, and for almost four decades, nothing could stop their annual journey to see their families in rural provinces.

That was until the pandemic hit. This year, amid fears of a resurgent coronavirus, local authorities have stepped up efforts to discourage workers from travelling over the holidays, imposing stringent virus tests, mandatory quarantines and even providing monetary incentives.

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In Guangdong province, China’s manufacturing hub, cities like Shenzhen and Dongguan usually see up to 70 per cent of residents leave town for weeks at a time over the Lunar New Year holiday. But this month, the streets are unusually busy.

It’s hard to get used to the parks and malls being so lively on Lunar New Year’s eve

Jade Zheng

“It’s hard to get used to the parks and malls being so lively on Lunar New Year’s eve,” said Jade Zheng, a Shenzhen-based manufacturing operations manager. “In previous years, you only saw empty streets and vacant homes.

“Many of my friends have reduced their spending for Lunar New Year. After all, our incomes were greatly affected last year,” she said, referring to the mass business closures caused by coronavirus lockdowns in 2020.

While some factories will let employees stay on and work, many small and medium-sized firms – which account for most jobs in China – are still closing because they are unwilling or unable to pay expensive holiday working rates.

“About 70 per cent of our employees are staying in Shenzhen for Lunar New Year,” said Stephen Zhang, general manager of digital printing equipment maker CNTOP. “In previous years, over 90 per cent would have already returned to their hometowns.”

Workers will be allowed to live in the company dormitory for free during the holiday, but the factory will not restart production until February 21, he said.

“Most of our downstream suppliers are already on holiday and have suspended production for the break,” Zhang said. “There’s no reason to let the workers work overtime.”

Nevertheless, many employers say that with more workers staying put, recruitment after the Lunar New Year will be easier and businesses will be able to rapidly resume operations. The slow return of migrant workers to cities has created worker shortages in Guangdong in previous years.

“I plan to pay for a good meal for everyone on New Year’s Day, but few other costs will increase,” said Zheng Bo, founder of Livall, a Shenzhen-based smart bicycle helmet maker, whose staff will mostly be staying in the city.

With so many of his employees remaining in Shenzhen, the company will save on recruitment and operating costs after the holidays, he said. It will also help him quickly fill a backlog of January orders, which has already exceeded the total volume for the first quarter of last year.

China is expected to see 77.61 per cent of its 280 million migrant workers stay put for the Lunar New Year holiday, according to a survey of 53,107 migrant workers at about 500 companies conducted by the Chinese Association of Labour Science, the Counsellors’ Office of the State Council and Xinhua News Agency.

It is unprecedented to see more than 100 million migrant workers stay in place during the holiday.

Ma De, a skilled worker with a Taiwan-invested manufacturing firm, said the period was traditionally a time for people to reunite with family and spend money in their villages.

For most of us, after a hard year’s work, we will spend most of our savings in our hometowns during the two week Spring Festival

Ma De

“For most of us, after a hard year’s work, we would spend most of our savings in our hometowns during the two week Spring Festival,” he said.

“People would give presents to children and parents they left behind, repair their houses, have blind dates, and have various social gatherings.”

While he is stuck in Shenzhen, De said he would spend time at the park or watch films with friends. But should restrictions be eased, he seemed ready to go.

“If authorities relax restrictions and say there is no need for us to quarantine, I bet a large number of people would clamber aboard trains for the journey home,” De added.

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