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Why migrant workers are shunning China's factories

By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Donguan

Migrant workers leaving Donguan
Some migrant workers are choosing to leave the cities and work closer to home

Finding a job in the city of Donguan in southern China is not hard at the moment.

There is said to be a shortage of two million workers in this part of China.

Across the road from the railway station a small employment fair, one of several open each day in the neighbourhood, is crammed with small desks.

Behind each one sits a factory representative, eager to meet the new recruits to China's army of migrant workers.

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Former migrant worker Zhang Biao on how the recession improved his life

A labour bureau official who is overseeing the event denies there is a shortage, but the body language of the recruiters suggests that is not the case.

They are the ones who look keen here. They, not the job seekers, are working hard.

Luo Dong Shi, a worker from Hunan province, says it is a good time to be looking for a job.

"At the moment they don't have enough people," he says. "You can go to a factory and get a job without even an interview."

Missing workers

At the Yong Feng shoe moulding factory nearby you hear a similar story.

The managers say they have work for 550 people but at the moment they only have 400 workers.

A worker at the shoe moulding factory
Jobs are on offer at factories like this one in Donguan

Mike Wu, the production manager, says the wages he can offer used to be incentive enough to recruit people and keep them. But those days are over.

"Nowadays, for workers, the difference between the wage you get inland and the wage you get here is not huge."

He also believes China's one child policy is influencing behaviour.

"Many families are better off these days, partly because there's fewer mouths to feed," he says, "so younger workers would rather work nearer home, even if the wages are slightly lower."

There is a line of nine huge mechanical lathes in front of him. Only one is being used. So where are the missing workers?

'More stable'

In Da Zhou Zhuang, a small village in Anhui province in eastern China, we find some of them.

Wang Ping is working on a sewing machine in her small shop in the middle of the village.

Wang Ping makes curtains at her shop
Wang Ping and her husband make curtains in their hometown

Beside her, her husband Zhang Biao is trying to persuade some of his neighbours to buy the curtains they sell here.

The couple left their factory jobs when the financial crisis began and never went back.

It used to be the case that if you wanted to make decent money you needed to leave a village like this one and look for work elsewhere.

But since the crisis, some former migrant workers with the help of government officials are finding ways to make money at home.

Zhang Biao says they make a lot more money than they used to.

"It was difficult at the start. We didn't know what kind of goods people here wanted. Gradually we worked it out," he says.

Now he can care for his parents and his daughter year round at home. "Life is more stable, much better than when I was a migrant worker," he says.

To help get their business on a firm footing, the local government has told them they do not need to pay taxes for three years to help them get started.

Wei Zheng, a local labour official, says the scheme is a local initiative that has the backing of Beijing.

Wei Zheng
Wei Zheng says the trend means parents can look after their children

"These migrant workers don't necessarily make more money in the coastal areas any more. If they come back they can look after their parents and their children. That really helps to build a harmonious society."

Now, every day, Zhang Biao can get on his bike to take his daughter to school.

She studies in a simple classroom on the edge of the village.

Rising incomes in the countryside are creating new opportunities and mean more of these children will grow up without absent parents.

Zhang Biao's daughter might one day still move away for work, but she will probably have a choice and officials say that is progress.



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