Coronavirus: more than two thirds of China’s migrant labourers not yet back at work

Date: Tuesday, February 18, 2020
Source: South China Morning Post

  • Less than one third of China’s 291 million migrant workers have returned to their jobs because of the coronavirus outbreak, the transport ministry says
  • The delay could seriously disrupt China’s manufacturing and services sectors, which do not have the luxury of working from home

China is still weeks away from getting its economy back up to speed as most of the country’s migrant labourers have not yet returned to work because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Less than one third of China’s 291 million migrant workers – citizens with household registration in rural areas but who work in towns and cities – had returned from their hometowns by last Friday, Liu Xiaoming, a vice-transport minister, said at the weekend.

The transport ministry said passenger traffic on China’s roads, railways and aeroplanes was 12 million people on Sunday, about 20 per cent of the volume on the same day a year earlier.

As the new coronavirus has spread from the central Chinese city of Wuhan, authorities across the country have imposed sweeping transport restrictions, curbed shop hours and locked down cities home to tens of millions of people.

Most provinces returned to work last week after an extended Lunar New Year, but a significant portion of the workforce is still in limbo amid factory shutdowns and quarantine measures imposed on businesses.

Some 120 million migrant workers are expected to return to their jobs in the second half of February, bringing the workforce to about two thirds of its full capacity. The remaining 100 million will return in March if the virus – which has killed more than 1,800 people and infected over 70,000 – is brought under control, said Liu.

The delay could seriously disrupt China’s manufacturing and services sectors, which do not have the luxury of working from home.

Foxconn, Apple’s main iPhone manufacturer in Zhengzhou city, is offering a 3,000 yuan (US$430) bonus to migrant workers from Henan province, which neighbours the virus’ epicentre Hubei, if they return to its factory by the end of the month, the Chinese magazine Caixin reported. Workers from other provinces can claim the bonus if they return by March 7.

Authorities in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, announced free train trips for workers returning from regions where the outbreak was stable. Yiwu, an export hub for manufactured goods south of the city, is also promising subsidised transport.

China’s statistics bureau estimates there are about 174 million migrant workers employed outside their home provinces, although domestic migration could be much larger as the figure does not capture millions of white-collar office workers in big cities like Beijing and Shenzhen.

While Beijing is pushing for a resumption of normal economic activity, full-scale production is being hampered by containment measures, including quarantine periods and requirements that businesses provide staff with face masks.

Shenzhen, a manufacturing hub and major destination for migrant workers across the border from Hong Kong, on Sunday introduced a cumbersome registration system for all people that want to use the metro system,

Meanwhile, a total of 56,300 passengers returned to the city last Thursday, an 87.3 per cent drop in numbers from the same date a year earlier, according to local transport authorities.

The city’s Baiwangxin Hi-Tech Industrial Park, home to factories such as drone maker DJI and LED producer Ledman Optoelectronic, said only about a quarter the 12,000 workers employed at the facility had returned for duty, and no factory was operating with more than half of its employees.

“DJI has more than 500 workers back, but their factories have a total of 3,000 to 4,000 labourers, so the rate is still not very high,” said Xu, a spokesman for the park’s property management company. He said it was hard to forecast when operations would return to normal, as that depended on municipal authorities who were tasked with containing the coronavirus.

“The enterprises, even those who have reopened, are still very cautious,” Xu said. “Our measures are still very strict … we have left only one gate to enter and leave the park, and have checkpoints at the main gate and every subzone.”

Shanghai was experiencing similar workforce issues. Two-thirds of factories in the city had kick-started operations by the end of last week, but 78 per cent did not have enough workers to resume full production, according to a survey of 109 firms conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.

Other indicators have also pointed to the low-level of production plaguing China’s economy. The daily coal consumption of six major power generation groups, which are monitored closely by analysts to gauge the intensity of industrial production, dropped by 10 per cent from a year ago in the week ended February 14, according to the industrial website

Haitong Securities analysts said on Sunday that the data on passenger traffic and coal consumption for power generation clearly showed that the world’s second biggest economy was far from running at full steam.

Only two thirds of China’s industrial capacity is estimated to be operational by the end of this month, Minsheng Securities said recently, showing the coronavirus outbreak could have a much bigger impact on the economy than expected.

Meanwhile, the National People’s Congress, an annual gathering of China’s top legislature that sets economic and social development targets, including China’s growth rate target, is expected to postpone its March 5 session by several weeks.


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