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1 Nov 2023

Li Yuan, The New York Times

They Propelled China’s Rise. Now They Have Nothing to Fall Back On

See all tags Allegations


Migrant workers were for years the secret weapon of China’s economic rise. They left their villages for the big cities to earn a living and send money home, even if it meant that they had to work long hours, lived in cramped dormitories and rarely saw their loved ones.

They built China’s skyscrapers, highways and high-speed railways, even though some senior officials called them “low-end population.” Their cheap wages helped China become the world’s biggest manufacturer and make the country’s megacities hum.

Now that times are tough and jobs harder to find, China’s roughly 300 million migrant workers, with flimsy social benefits, have little to fall back on. They don’t enjoy the same health insurance, unemployment and retirement benefits as city-born people, as threadbare as their safety net is. Once migrant workers pass their prime working age, they are expected to go back to their home villages so they won’t become burdens to the cities...

He said more than 20 million migrant workers, unable to find work, had returned to their villages during the 2008 financial crisis. In 2020, he said, nearly 30 million migrant workers had to stay home, and out of the reach of jobs, because of the pandemic...

Mr. Ge left his village at age 17 and started working on construction sites and in factories. He had benefits during the six years he worked at Foxconn, a contract manufacturer for Apple. But when he was out of work this year, he could not get any unemployment benefits, which is not uncommon as local governments are deeply in debt. Now 34, he still works 10-hour shifts at another Apple contract manufacturer and lives in a dormitory.

The morning we spoke he had just gotten off a shift that started at 7:30 p.m. and ended at 7 a.m. He had worked for two weeks without a day off because of the demand for Apple’s newest iPhone.

He feels he cannot go home to his village and do nothing while his parents and grandfather are still working. “It’s just not appropriate,” he said...