Page last updated at 23:15 GMT, Tuesday, 8 September 2009 00:15 UK

China's workers return to cities

By Rob Young
BBC News, Changsha, China

Chu Ching-Hu is one of an estimated 20 million migrants who gave up on life in the city earlier this year when China was battered by economic storms from the West.

Casual workers in Changsha
The Chinese migrant worker is really at the bottom of the world supply chain and they are the guys who can be easily expended
Professor Kam Wing Chan

But it seems that pattern of migration is reversing as China's economy begins to pick up.

He had been working as a waiter in a city hotel in the south, but the 30-year-old had to return to his home village in central China.

Now, as the world economy picks up and China's economic growth touches 8%, Chu Ching-Hu is heading to Guangdong province to work in a pottery factory.

He is just one of the millions of migrant workers in the country who lost their job amid the global economic downturn. The crash forced these workers out of the coastal cities they had been working in to return to the countryside.

Long journey

Sitting in a vast, humid waiting room in a railway station in Changsha in Hunan province, he explains why he has decided to return to the city again.

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"In our local area there are no factories. We live in the countryside where there is no money and we need to travel a long way to get any work."

He is indeed on a long journey. He left Jiangxi province at 8am. He will finally arrive in Guangdong at the same time the following morning. He is waiting in Changsha for the overnight train to the south and what he hopes will be a better life for him and his relatives.

"My family is back in the village. For family expenses we need to send money back home from working away. It will mean my parents can have easier lives and there will be better conditions for my kids."

Getting better

He is making this mammoth journey with Gan Lei Chun who is taking Chu Ching-Hu and two others to work in his son's factory making chinaware.

Sitting among the boxes that contain some of the migrants' possessions, he says the family business has been affected by the recession in their Western markets, but says that things are looking up.

"Some foreign buyers had paid deposits for their orders, but when it came to it they couldn't afford to pay the rest of the price. But recently the economy has started to improve. Business is going to get better."

The government in Beijing says 95% of the migrants who made the long journey back to the countryside are now back in the cities, either working or looking for work.

It has been estimated by Western academics that about 10 million of them cannot find jobs.

But a recent study has suggested that even those who are lucky enough to get a job are being employed for fewer hours and are being paid less.

"The Chinese migrant worker is really at the bottom of the world supply chain and they are the guys who can be easily expended," says Professor Kam Wing Chan, an expert on China's internal migration at Washington University in Seattle.

Casual labour

Liu Zhao Xiang is one of dozens of men who are hanging around under a motorway bridge in the centre of Changsha.

Liu Zhao Xiang
It's harder to get work this year because there are too many workers
Liu Zhao Xiang

All are dressed in the clothes of their trade and some have even brought their pneumatic drills with them. Others have small, painted signs by their feet, listing their skills.

Liu Zho Xiang was paid the equivalent of $10 (£6) the previous day to knock down a wall, but he has been hanging around in this casual labour market for hours now and he has not seen a single potential employer.

Among the car fumes and honking car horns, this 55-year-old man with a lifetime of hard work etched on his face says things are tough.

"It's harder to get work this year because there are too many workers."

It seems surprising these construction workers cannot find a day's pay here. Changsha, like every other city in China, seems to be a huge building site. The central government's massive economic stimulus plan means new roads, railways and clinics are being built all over China.

'I just cried'

Someone who is benefitting from the government's spending binge is 22-year-old Tan Mei, who came back to her family in Jiuhua, a few kilometres from Changsha, earlier this year.

Tan Mei
Tan Mei hopes to get a job after receiving state-subsidised training

She had been working in a factory making parts for mobile phones.

"My family's financial position was not good so I had to get work to support them. I missed my family and my home so much, I just cried," she says.

"But the factories were hit by the economic crisis and they didn't need so many workers."

She has managed to get a place on a government-funded training course, learning how to assemble parts at a local DVD factory.

The factory boss says that if Tan Mei passes the course, there is a good chance she will get a job there.

'Wise policy'

The man who oversees the training is Wu Anguo, the head of the Social Affairs Bureau in Jiuhua.

"Many people lost the income they need to survive," he says.

"The Chinese government encourages training for those who've lost their jobs and offers subsidies to pay for the training programmes. It is a wise policy."

But the future for China's estimated 150-million migrant workers is far from certain.

Many of the jobs have been created thanks to government spending programmes. They will not last forever, even if the level of spending is increased in the short term.

The migrants' desire for a city job and a better life is understandable and is also encouraged by the government.

But whether they will have enough factories, hotels and building sites to work in depends to a large extent on whether consumers in developed countries start buying Chinese-made goods.

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