Migrant workers hit hardest by job losses in 2020

19 January 2021

China boasted a robust economic recovery following the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, but official statistics confirm that rural migrant workers, who make up more than one-third of the working population, suffered severe job losses and saw incomes stagnate.

The number of rural migrant workers employed in China dropped by more than five million last year, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). The total migrant worker population in 2020 was 285.6 million, compared with 290.8 million in 2019. Migrant worker population growth had been slowing over the last decade; however, this was the first time numbers decreased year on year.

Long-distance migrants accounted for the bulk of the decline, with numbers dropping 2.7 percent to 169.6 million, indicating that migrant workers living in larger cities in the more economically developed areas of China were worst hit by the economic downturn. By contrast, the number of short-distance migrants, those working closer to their home areas, dropped by just 0.4 percent to 116 million.

Wage levels for migrant workers only increased by 2.8 percent last year, compared with a 6.5 percent increase in 2019. The headline inflation rate last year was 2.5 percent, effectively neutralizing any wage gains. The average wage for migrant workers in China last year was just 4,072 yuan per month. 

Wage stagnation was further reflected in per capita consumer expenditure. For China as a whole, this figure decreased by 4.0 percent last year, after taking inflation into account.

The NBS claims that 11.9 million new jobs were created in urban areas last year. This is significantly higher than the original target of nine million, but is still lower than the 13.5 million urban jobs created in 2019.

However, the new jobs available to migrant workers have tended to be low-paid and precarious employment in the service sector. For example, in the first half of the year, there was an influx of an estimated half a million workers - many laid off from factories - into the food delivery industry. As a result, the wage levels for more established workers declined dramatically. The situation was so serious that numerous delivery workers took strike action to highlight the problem.

Increased competition for employment meant that migrant workers had no choice but to accept lower pay, longer working hours and hazardous working conditions in new growth industries. The massive global demand for face masks, for example, created lucrative opportunities for major manufacturers who could quickly retool their production lines. In the spring of last year, electric vehicle manufacturer BYD hired several thousand workers for its mask production facility in Changsha, where employees reportedly worked 12-hour shifts with just one day off per week for no more than 6,000 yuan a month, including a productivity bonus. The intense working environment reportedly led to a spate of accidents in the factory.

Pandemic prevention measures have placed a huge, additional burden on China’s millions of sanitation workers, who are predominantly women and elderly rural migrants. The vast majority of sanitation workers are employed by private contractors who impose onerous targets on their employees and offer little in the way of protection from infection or work accidents. Many sanitation workers saw their job duties increase this past year but received no commensurate increase in pay.

While government officials try to paint a positive picture of China’s economic recovery for 2021, there are still few signs that the country’s lowest-paid workers will benefit. As we reported last month, none of China’s provinces and regions announced a minimum wage increase in 2020, and several regions implemented an official minimum wage freeze. The minimum wage freeze is likely to continue this year, putting even more pressure on migrant workers.

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