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China's migrants look for work
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Wang Zhengxiu is dressed brightly and sports black toenail polish, belying her inner fears about finding a job in China's slumping economy.

The 38-year-old knows she is competing with millions of other unemployed people across the country.

"We've been looking for work for about 40 days," says Wang, sitting outside a job fair in the industrial city of Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. "If we fail to find a job in another week, we will return home to Chongqing. We can't afford to live here without a job.".

Her husband, Yu Shichang, 40, is also jobless. "Every place wants experienced hands. Even planting trees, they need experience. Such simple work can be learnt by watching."

The labor-intensive manufacturing centers in Guangdong Province have suffered with slumping demand for China-made goods. Exports dropped 17.5 percent last month from a year earlier. The central government estimates 20 million migrant workers, 15 percent of the total, have been left jobless.

Guangdong's labor department has warned that of the 9.7 million migrants expected to flow back into the province, 2 million will have slim hopes of finding work.

Poorly-paid jobs do exist. Wang found a job at a shoe factory, but left because the environment was dirty. "If I fell ill, the money I earned was not enough for treatment."

In the past, Wang earned at least 1,600 yuan a month. Now she hopes for at least 1,200 yuan a month.

"Now we can only find jobs paying about 800 to 1,000 yuan (114 to 142 U.S. dollars) a month, almost the minimum to survive in the city."

Some settle for less. Zhang Xiongshen, 28, from Jiangxi Province, earned up to 3,000 yuan a month before the financial crisis hit, but he'd be satisfied with a job paying 1,500 yuan.

"I had to lower my expectations, then lower them again. It's important to keep my stomach full first. Then if the situation improves, I can change jobs," Zhang says.

Wang and her husband sit and chat with other migrant workers outside the job fair. When they get a tip that two factories are hiring with decent salaries, they're away.

They arrive at the first plant, which is a small workshop. Questions fly between the prospective workers and the boss. They ask how much they can earn for making a pair of shoes; how long they have to work; how much they have to pay for dormitory accommodation and food; and when can they start working.

They register their phone numbers and leave.

"That plant doesn't have any orders. You can tell by the empty seats and idle workers. Bosses don't want to lose workers in case an urgent order comes in," Wang says. "Without work, we can't earn money."

They enter the second plant, and quickly leave. "The intern payment is 750 yuan in the first two months and we will be paid for each piece we make. It means we can get about 800 yuan a month. That's not enough to survive," Wang says.

"We're just like vagrants, wandering around every day."

"With no job, I'm filled with panic and worry," Yu says.

The couple search for work all day and return home at night.

Yu waves along the line of factories on the street: "Look at the factories here, most are closed. They will open only when they have orders."

The husband and wife want their own business. "We want to raise pigs or chickenz at home. When we are in our 50s, no factory will employ us," says Yu. "We want to gain experience first by working on pig or chicken farms. But you need connections now to get jobs on farms. Otherwise, the bosses won't trust you."

The government is providing training for migrant workers to improve their skills. Trade unions are focusing on helping more than 10 million migrant workers, including vocational training.

"The key is to meet the real needs of the migrant workers or market demand," says Wang Chunguang, a researcher on migrant population with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The couple have helped their 19-year-old son develop a skill. He came to Guangzhou after finishing middle school last year and is learning car mechanics.

Their daughter, aged 14, is in middle school in Chongqing. “We call every week for 20 minutes. It costs about 3 yuan.... She has so much to say, but the calls are expensive," says Wang.

The couple say they had to leave her behind in Chongqing.

"We had to come to the city. Farming can earn 3,000 yuan a year, not enough to support a family of six. We have to pay for our children's education, our parents' health care and food."

"Most young people under 40 in my village are working in cities. Only the old and the children are at home," says Wang.

They rent a small room for 170 yuan a month in a densely populated migrant worker community.

They talk about thefts, robberies and two murders they heard in the neighborhood. "It appears safe here, but not really. Too many people have lost their jobs, but need to survive."

Ding Zhiqiang, deputy-director of Guangzhou Stability Office, says the pressure to maintain social order will rise, but the situation is not serious enough to cause mass riots.

"One factor is the migrant workers still have a plot of land to live on," says Chen Shu, secretary general of the Guangzhou Bar Association and deputy to the National People's Congress (NPC), China’s parliament.

This is also an option for Wang and Yu, who have lived in the city for almost two decades.

Another reason for them to return is that spring is the season to plow.

"It's time to plant paddy seedlings in March. This is our last resort. If we miss the season, we will have no choice, but to stay in the city for another year."

(Xinhua News Agency March 3, 2009)

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