‘We won’t survive’: China’s migrant workers fear more lockdowns as Covid threat remains

“Relax, you’re worrying about nothing!” Ji reassures his clients as he sticks more than half of his body out of a sixth-floor window trying to clean it.

It’s 2 June, one day after Shanghai eased its lockdown to contain the city’s latest coronavirus outbreak, and Ji, a migrant worker originally from nearby Jiangsu province, is finally back in business.

The 51-year-old repairman has been hired by a couple to clean their window and fix a few other home appliances. In return, he will be paid 200 yuan (£30). As he dangles half outside the window, Ji doesn’t appear scared. For him, finally being able to work again has overcome any fear.

“It’s a relief. For two and a half months I haven’t had any work to do at all, so it’s good to finally be able to go out and make money again,” he says.

Over the past two months, Shanghai residents experienced the largest-scale citywide lockdown that has been imposed in China since the beginning of the pandemic. Nearly 25 million people were restricted to their homes, bringing almost all economic and social activities grinding to a halt. For Ji’s community, the lockdown was even longer, beginning two weeks earlier than the rest of the city.

“I lied in bed so much that my back still hurts,” says Ji, who endured the lockdown with his wife in a cramped bedroom they rented.

Migrant workers hit hardest

In 2021 there were more than 292 million Chinese migrant workers across urban and city areas of China. Comprising a third of the country’s workforce, migrant workers are from rural areas or are classified as such through the strict “hokou” household registration system which dictates residential rights including migration and taxation.

According to official data, in 2019 more than 4.5 million migrant workers were registered with employment in Shanghai. Most of this group had no work during lockdown and received no government assistance. Ji says he is envious of office workers who could still earn a living by working from home.

“It’s tough. Migrant workers like me are hit the hardest by these restrictions because we have to really be out to make a living. We don’t have much savings anyway under normal circumstances. In my case, I have two parents to provide for, and my son has just got married, for which we are still in debt because of his betrothal gifts,” he says.

Ji made it through the lockdown thanks to a friend who lent him about 10,000 yuan which helped with rent and expenses. “On average, we need at least 100 yuan to cover our daily expenses, so that money really helped.”

Still, the loan has left him with more debt and Ji says it is hard to find work as he is restricted from entering some parts of the city.

“Some communities still won’t let us in and people are still reluctant to have strangers inside their house for fear of possible Covid infection.”

Chinese migrant workers make up a third of the country’s workforce. Photograph: Héctor Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

When asked if he has thought about leaving Shanghai, where he has been living for more than 30 years, Ji seems hesitant.

“Part of me wants to leave, but going home means having to be quarantined for 14 days at my own cost, which I can’t afford. Besides, all of my tools are with me here in Shanghai, and transporting them back home would cost a lot, too. So for now, I’ll keep trying my luck here and take one day at a time. I only hope that there won’t be another major lockdown here, otherwise I would have to leave.”

‘Desperate’ for work

While Ji is hopeful he can stick it out in Shanghai, Gong, a 54-year-old elderly caregiver originally from Yangzhou, Jiangsu, is feeling more desperate.

Sitting listlessly on her e-bike parked in the shade of a bus stop in the afternoon sun, Gong is awaiting potential clients. With her are five fellow migrant workers, including three men and two other women who work as junk dealers and elderly caregivers. Every day this month, they have come to the same busy spot hoping to find work, but people rarely stop to make an inquiry.

“We haven’t had any business since the reopening,” said Gong on 9 June as she turned around to double check with a junk dealer behind her, who confirmed that they’d had no luck, either.

Like Ji, this group of migrant workers had zero income during the lockdown. Yet caregivers in particular continue to suffer as nursing homes remain shut and many people are too fearful of Covid to bring in help.

“We’re going through a very difficult time,” Gong says. “The nursing centre we used to work for closed due to the lockdown and hasn’t reopened yet.

“We don’t know when it will reopen and can’t wait for that. I already owe my landlord two months of rent, so I am desperately in need of a job.”

Recalling her experience over the past two months, Gong says her heart is still fluttering with fear. As work dried up during the lockdown, access to food also became more difficult. Small amounts of food were provided by governments and some supplies could be bought online.

“I had only rice to eat for some time, and eventually I was down to my last grain. Thankfully, one of my neighbours learned about this and shared some rice and taught me how to participate in group-buying online.” Still, the higher-than-usual prices of groceries have eaten up what little savings she had, Gong says.

The threat of a fresh Covid outbreak is still very real in the city. Earlier this month health authorities dismissed speculation that a citywide lockdown would be imposed on 20 June, but restrictions have been reimposed in some Shanghai communities as new cases emerge.

Gong says she and other workers “definitely won’t be able to survive another lockdown”.

“We can’t afford to go home either because of the high cost of mandatory quarantine. If there’s any real help, it would be policies that really address our immediate needs, like giving us rent relief and subsidies,” she says.

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