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With Chinese New Year – better known as the Spring Festival in China – less than two weeks away, the annual mass migration to get home for the holidays is in full swing.This year, 185 million people are expected to travel during the official week-long holiday period, 21% more than last year. Many of those travellers will be migrant workers who have left their home towns in China’s rural interior to find manufacturing, construction or production jobs in the country’s more affluent southern and eastern cities.
In recent years, the annual trip home for many of these workers has turned into a one-way journey. As working and living conditions in the country’s inland provinces continues to improve, more and more of these migrants are abandoning their city jobs and taking positions closer to home; creating major post-holiday work shortages in some industries.
In early 2011, the problem of worker shortages in general became an especially alarming topic in China, with many of the country’s labour-intensive industries loosing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of workers. This year some are predicting that labour shortages may be even more severe as urban jobs become increasingly less appealing, or in some cases less plentiful, for China’s migrant work force.
One major factor which may keep migrant workers away from coastal and eastern cities during 2012 is rising wages. In the past year, China’s 24 provincial-level regions raised their minimum wages by an average of 22%. While China’s first-tier cities still lead the way in terms of salary amounts, especially as urban employers turn to financial incentives to entice workers to stay on the job, inflation and the high cost of living associated with urban life remain formidable barriers standing in the way of real wage growth.
Furthermore, as low-end manufacturing industries (which still remain the backbone of China’s coastal and eastern economies) slowly move inland, migrant workers may find it easier to locate in their hometowns the kinds of employment opportunities that were once only available in large urban centres. Similarly, with increasing urbanization in China’s interior regions, combined with a cooling real estate market and a corresponding slow-down in new building projects in China’s coastal metropolises, migrant workers engaged in construction and infrastructure-related fields may find it easier to find employment in less developed parts of the country.
Finally, as China’s demographic, social and macroeconomic landscape continues to rapidly transform itself, worker sentiment towards the low-skill level, low-value added positions which have traditionally attracted Chinese workers from the countryside to the nation’s first-tier cities is continuing to dwindle as well. In recent years, a number of well-publicised strikes and disputes in several of the country’s labour-intensive industries – involving issues as varied as withheld wages, canceled holiday time and workplace treatment – may deter workers from travelling far from home to take up positions in these industries.
Additionally, as the Chinese workforce in general becomes more skilled and better educated, and as the country’s economy moves up the value-chain, labour-intensive factory and construction jobs may also seem less attractive and less viable as a long-term career choice for the country’s younger workers. More than 18% of employees in China changed jobs in 2011, and increased mobility in the country’s workforce is likely to effect the country’s migrant population as well in the coming year.