GUANGZHOU, China Pulling suitcases and hefting heavy bags on their shoulders, millions of Chinese workers are boarding trains to head home for the Lunar New Year - a holiday that triggers the world’s biggest annual migration of people.
This year some may not come back from the holiday, which begins Feb. 14, a growing worry for factory owners facing labor shortages, but also a sign of improving opportunities for workers throughout China, not just in the coastal regions that have long been its manufacturing base.
“During the holiday, I’ll check to see if I can get a decent job around my hometown,” Li Beiyong said, standing by her big purple polka-dotted suitcase this week in the crowded station in Guangzhou. “The pay might be lower, but the cost of living isn’t as high. I might do better there.”
The buoyant job market is a dramatic reversal from a year ago, when the global financial crisis was battering China’s exporters. Millions of migrants were told to stay home because there wouldn’t be much work in Guangzhou and other usually booming southern cities. Then, as business started picking up during the middle of last year,factories were caught shorthanded.
China has experienced labor shortages frequently during the past decade, but many businesses now say they expect it to be worse this year than ever before. Migrants are finding jobs closer to home as the poor interior provinces become more prosperous. The supply of young laborers is decreasing as an effect of China’s one-child policy, and fewer are willing to work for extremely low wages as their parents did.
Farm-friendly policies are encouraging many to stay in rural areas. And China’s stimulus package has created jobs across the country, sucking labor from coastal factories.
“We’ve raised the monthly salary of our workers twice during the last year, from [$176] to [$249], but it’s still not that easy to keep workers,” said Lu Lei, general manger of Shanghai Reisheng Industrial Product Co. Ltd. in Shanghai.
But even with the raises, his salaries struggle to keep pace with rising living costs in the city that have discouraged workers from applying for jobs at his plastic-pipe factory, he said.
Over time, higher wages could translate into rising prices for Chinese-made goods worldwide. They may also increase the buying power of workers, which in turn could help China reduce its dependence on exports by boosting domestic demand - including potentially for imported goods.
Li, the worker at the Guangzhou station, said she earns about $220 a month in a hotel in the east coast city of Ningbo, south of Shanghai.
But now she has a range of options: Besides looking for a job in her hometown, the 24-year-old woman also is considering shifting to neighboring Guangdong province, where she worked in an electronics factory for $73 a month in 2005.
“I would never work for such little money again,” said Li, whose family grows rice in the Guangxi region in China’s south. “My bottom line is [$146], but I can easily get more than that. The market is good for workers now.”
As she talked, people flowed into the square at Guangzhou’s train station. About 210 million passengers - more than Russia’s population - are expected to ride the rails on trips that can last up to 20 hours on hard wooden seats during the40-day New Year travel season. The holiday officially lasts six days, but many workers take a month off.
Textile worker Yao Jian, 37, made $439 a month as a machine operator outside Guangzhou, but he wasn’t pleased with the conditions and said he would look for a new job after the New Year.
“A lot of factories are short on workers, but they’re the ones that don’t pay enough,” said Yao, who was confident about finding another job in textiles. “They’re sweatshops. Who will work for them anymore?” Information for this article was contributed by Ji Chen of The Associated Press.