BEIJING, March 10 (AFP) - Huada Electrical Appliances has piles of orders from abroad -- a welcome sign that China's exports are bouncing back after the global economic crisis.
But the television and computer components company has just one-fifth of the 300 people it needs to work the assembly line to fill those orders by the end of June.
"Our hair is turning grey because of the anxiety," a company executive, who would only give her surname Wu, told AFP, explaining that the firm was recruiting everywhere -- on pavements, near food markets and with job agencies.
"If we cannot deliver on time, our credibility with foreign clients will certainly get damaged. They will turn to other suppliers and that will cause serious losses to us."
Huada is one of thousands of companies in China's coastal exporting belt now grappling with a massive labour shortage, just one year after the economic crisis put some 20 million migrant workers out of work.
The eastern province of Zhejiang, where Huada is based, is facing its worst labour shortage since 2003, with an average of 383 jobs on offer for every 100 registered job seekers, said provincial labour department official Ren Jianjun.
In Guangdong, China's industrial powerhouse in the south, plants were already 900,000 workers short by late February, according to government data.
Experts say the reasons for the coastal shortfall are multiple -- from better work opportunities and lower cost of living in the country's interior to the fact that many are denied social services when they leave their hometowns.
"Young workers are no longer prepared to accept indefinitely the appalling working conditions their parents put up with," said Geoff Crothall of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, an advocacy group.
Migrant labourers have long been the foot soldiers of China's economic miracle, toiling far from home for little pay in often dangerous construction or factory jobs as well as positions in service industries that others refuse.
But decades of prosperity -- along with Beijing's 586-billion-dollar, infrastructure-focused stimulus package unveiled in late 2008 -- have created more jobs in China's interior, leaving workers with more choices.
One official survey conducted before the Chinese New Year in mid-February, among more than 9,000 workers, found that only 62 percent planned to leave home for work after the holiday, six percentage points lower than in 2008.
Among those who said they would move, 29 percent said they would stay in the centre and west of the country, according to the survey by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security.
"The central and western areas are developing too. Even though the salaries may be a bit lower... the net income is often the same due to higher living expenses in the coastal areas," said senior ministry researcher Mo Rong.
"There is room for migrant workers to be a bit more selective now."
Some observers say the shortage is restricted to certain labour-intensive industries and linked to the New Year holiday, given the labour surplus in the country's rural areas was still as large as 100 million.
But officials and employers in the key export areas -- China's so-called "workshop to the world" -- are taking no chances that things will turn around on their own.
To attract workers, Guangdong labour authorities have urged companies to raise wages and provide better working and living conditions. Jiangsu province, also in the east, has already raised the minimum wage by 13 percent this year.
In Dongguan, a town in Guangdong known for toy and electronics exports, the average monthly salary of assembly-line workers increased in 2010 by up to 25 percent to 1,500 yuan (220 dollars) from 2008 levels, local job agencies say.
Some companies have even built on-site Internet cafes, table tennis rooms and basketball courts.
But Crothall said better pay and amenities would ultimately not be enough.
"Even a wage of 2,000 yuan will not go very far in a place like Shenzhen or Shanghai," he said.
Unlike their parents, who eventually returned to work their farms in the countryside, the new generation of migrant workers wants a better future in China's growing cities.
Even the country's Communist leadership realises this, with Premier Wen Jiabao vowing last week in his state of the nation address to reform the country's increasingly unpopular household registration, or "hukou", system.
"We should gradually enable migrant workers to get the same rights that urban residents have in terms of work payment, children's education, health care, home purchase and renting, and social security," Wen said.
Tang Hongbo, 25, is part of that new generation.
Tang worked for five years in Guangdong -- first in a computer parts factory and then as a hardware salesman. But he returned home to the central province of Hunan a year ago to run an Internet cafe with a friend.
"I had only rare exchanges with the outside world when I was a migrant worker," Tang said.
"Now I have a lot of social contacts with people in various sectors, including government officials," he said.
"I seemed to have landed in the real world." (By Fran Wang/ AFP)