Page last updated at 13:07 GMT, Thursday, 24 September 2009 14:07 UK

New hope for China's migrant workers

Millions of rural migrants lost their jobs in China's cities as a result of the global economic downturn, but there are signs of a recovery as Lesley Curwen found on a visit to Changsha.

It was a great dusty cavernous space, with tall windows and high ceilings, perhaps twice the size of a Western church.

But there the ecclesiastical image broke down. It hummed with loud chatter and the smell of about a thousand people sweating in clammy unison.

Casual workers in Changsha
Many Chinese casual workers have struggled for work

It was waiting room number three at Changsha railway station, in Hunan province, 14 hours by train from the capital Beijing.

Twenty million migrant workers from China's countryside had lost their jobs in factories in the last year, because of the global downturn.

They had given up on city life to go back to their families and small plots of land.

But in the last few months, according to the Chinese government, they have been on the move again, travelling with hope back towards the cities.

New recruits

Somewhere in the seated crowd, I found Chu Qinghu, a lanky, shy 30 year old in a striped shirt.

He and two others from his village had been promised jobs at a pottery factory in the south-eastern coastal province of Guangdong, a stronghold of Chinese manufacturing.

The managers of factories across China are hoping against hope that exports will bounce back

In his mountainous village, he explained, there were no factories and no money, and even getting around was difficult.

His mother and his two children could survive on the vegetables they grew, but there was no money for other expenses. That is why he was on his way to Guangdong.

Chu Qinghu and the others were being escorted to their new workplace by a voluble chap, who turned out to be the father of the factory owner.

The new recruits were needed, he said, because things were starting to pick up. But their key export business had been hit badly.

map of Changsha

He shook his head, remembering how foreign buyers had paid 30% deposits on their orders, but failed to pay the rest.

"We just had to stick the unwanted goods in a storeroom," he said glumly. And a storeroom, it emerged, was where the new workers would be sleeping in a makeshift dormitory. It didn't seem to bother them.

As I watched Chu Qinghu's smiling face, I wondered how safe his new job would be. The managers of factories across China are hoping against hope that exports will bounce back as Western countries come out of recession.

Home market

For decades, exports delivered galloping economic growth. But now China has accepted that economic model is not sustainable.

It leaves the country too vulnerable to shocks like the credit crisis. The Premier Wen Jiabao has pledged that China must instead make more stuff for its own home markets.

I met someone who has benefited directly from that drive. She is Li Fung, a neat, confident young woman of 22 who recently got a prized job at the Geely car factory just outside Changsha.

I met her in an even noisier place than the railway station. My nostrils were clogged with the scent of hot metal.

Workers bearing what looked like death-ray guns from a 1950s comic were darting about in a complex ballet, leaning into car bodies to solder parts, generating great tails of yellow sparks.

Geely's GE model in Shanghai
Geely and other Chinese carmakers hope to grow globally

It was the assembly line for the Vision family car. Sales have risen 38%, with most of the cars sold to Chinese customers.

The company can thank the government's economic stimulus policy, which uses discounts and subsidies to tempt people into buying new cars like the Vision. The factory has taken on 300 new workers, including Li Fung.

She turned out to have a strong sense of her own worth, as a university graduate who speaks English. She told me she had found work on the assembly line "too easy", so she pushed hard to get a better job in the technology department.

"I want to be a manager," she announced. "I have the ability."

Still, Li Fung is lucky to work at Geely. Many of her fellow graduates are still jobless. She lives most of the time in an apartment block on the factory complex, and eats in the works canteen.

So is it possible that her job might be safer than Chu Qinghu's at the pottery factory which makes exports?

Yes, her factory is doing what the government wants. It is churning out products which attract Chinese consumers.

But what happens when the stimulus money and the tax cuts and the subsidies run out? Will customers in China keep on buying?

There are dark warnings from some quarters that bubbles in China's stock market and property market may yet burst, which might lead to another painful dip in growth.

I said goodbye to Li Fung as cars screeched off the final assembly line, hooting wildly as the horns got a thorough testing.

She grinned and waved, a living embodiment of the kind of optimism that has made China the third-biggest economy in the world.

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