In a Chinese Factory Town, Migrants ‘Lie Flat’ for a Better Deal
This is the second article in “Recovery” — a series of reports on how communities across China are attempting to move on from three years of strict pandemic-control measures. Read part 1, part 3, part 4, and part 5.
GUANGDONG, South China — China may finally be moving on from three years of strict anti-COVID-19 lockdowns, but it’s clear that migrant workers in Kangle Village are in no hurry to get back to work.
The urban village in central Guangzhou is one of China’s largest clothing hubs — a labyrinth of narrow lanes filled with thousands of workshops. For decades, people from all over the country have flocked here to find work stitching together suits, jeans, and other garments.
But the area was hit hard by the pandemic. When Kangle experienced a wave of infections last October, tough measures were imposed. The workshops shut down for months. Thousands of migrants were put into centralized quarantine, then pressured to leave the city.
Now, the virus-control measures are gone, and the streets of Kangle are crowded once again. Yet businesses are still struggling. Factory owners complain of rising costs, sluggish sales, and mounting debts.
But the workshops’ biggest problem right now is a chronic lack of staff: Migrants are simply no longer willing to take the jobs on offer.
It’s unclear to what extent factories in other industries are experiencing the same issues. China’s manufacturing sector as a whole has made a solid recovery this year, with an industry survey finding that factory activity was expanding strongly in February.
But the picture in Kangle highlights how the pain from China’s economic slowdown during the pandemic was not spread evenly. Weaker parts of the economy were often hit hardest, and are finding it tougher to recover.
Sixth Tone arrives in Kangle in mid-February — the traditional peak season for factory recruitment as people flood back into China’s manufacturing hubs after the Lunar New Year holiday. Large numbers of workers are wandering the streets, occasionally stopping to talk with recruiters holding up boards with the day’s rates scrawled on them.
The recruiters are getting a grilling. Workers ask how much the workshops pay per piece, how many pieces per order, then demand to see sample garments. They study the samples carefully, inspecting the number of stitches to calculate how quickly each piece can be completed.
Then, most of the time, the migrants walk away. Several tell Sixth Tone the rates on offer are too low; they would rather not work than take such poorly paid jobs.
Zeng Xiaozhou, a worker from central China’s Hubei province, has been in Kangle for an entire week, but has yet to accept a job offer. Before leaving his hometown, he had seen a video on social media claiming that it was possible to find gigs in Guangzhou paying 700 yuan ($100) a day. But so far, no workshops have offered anything close to that, he says.
“If it continues like this, I’ll barely be able to afford to eat,” says Zeng.
For workshops, recruitment has been challenging for at least five years, but the problem has gotten far worse during the pandemic. Recruiters say that workers increasingly refuse to take long-term jobs. Instead, they insist on taking short-term gig work, which offers less security but higher rates.
The trend is being driven by several factors, experts say. Compared with earlier generations of migrant workers, today’s young Chinese are less likely to be married and have children. That means they have more freedom to turn down jobs.
The economic fallout from the pandemic, meanwhile, has made working at the workshops less attractive. China’s clothing industry was severely damaged by last year’s lockdowns: An industry survey found that nearly 20% of large-scale factories made a loss in 2022, and their losses rose by an average of over 12% year-over-year.
Wages in the industry have flatlined as a result. Workers in Kangle say that workshops haven’t increased their rates at all since 2019. But the cost of living in central Guangzhou is soaring, with rents in Kangle rising by around 10% a year. Many migrants feel they have little to lose by holding out for a higher wage.
“Refusing to work while the rates are too low is the migrant workers’ way of fighting for more rights,” says Huang Yan, a professor at the South China University of Technology in Guangzhou whose research focuses on labor conditions in China. “But if they keep having no income, there will be a day when they go to work.”
Stuck in the middle
The recruitment issues are causing serious headaches for Kangle’s workshops. It’s not only that they are understaffed; the quality of the workforce is also deteriorating, factory owners say. Compared with long-term employees, gig workers tend to be inexperienced and lacking commitment, meaning that they often produce shoddy work.
One factory boss, surnamed Wang, tells Sixth Tone that she often spends more than half the day outside looking for new staff, but fails to hire a single worker. However, hiring no one is better than recruiting a low-skilled gig worker, she says.
When Sixth Tone visits Wang at her factory, she is busy restitching a towering pile of pants — they were originally done by a worker she’d hired that morning, she explains. Only half of the 17 work stations in the factory are occupied.
“These gig workers are hard to manage,” says Wang. “They come here to do several hours’ work, get paid, and leave. They don’t give you the chance to complain about the quality.”
But raising her wages to attract better workers is impossible, Wang says. Since she started the business in 2013, the monthly rent on her 200-square-meter factory has increased from 8,000 yuan to 16,000 yuan. But the unit price paid by her clients has only risen from 7 yuan to 9 yuan over that period.
“The workers are not willing to accept low rates, and the clients are not willing to raise their prices,” Wang sighs.
For Wang, the financial pressure is intense. She took out a 200,000 yuan loan to open the factory a decade ago, but turning a profit soon proved difficult. During the pandemic, her losses piled up. To keep the business running this year, she had to mortgage her family’s last major asset: an Audi car.
“Everyone says that business will be much better this year, but that’s not how I feel,” Wang says. “I’m not receiving many orders. I can’t find enough workers to finish the orders I have.”
Gig work also brings risks to the workers themselves, experts say. Though seasonal work is often better paid, gig workers may end up earning less than full-time staff overall due to frequent gaps between gigs. They also receive fewer protections.
“While they desperately search for something worthy of their labor time and effort, they don’t have access to basic social security benefits,” says Jenny Chan, an associate professor of sociology at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “It’s frustrating even when the local economy is slowly starting to revitalize.”
Workers in Kangle, however, often don’t appear to be thinking long-term. Dangdang, a 34-year-old migrant worker from east China’s Jiangxi province, says that he is resigned to the fact that he will be unable to save enough money for his retirement. Instead, he is focusing on making his life less stressful.
“Under the ravages of reality and the pandemic, I have achieved the ideal of ‘lying flat,’” says Dangdang, who gave only a pseudonym for privacy reasons. “I have stayed in one factory for four years not because it pays well, but because I am used to it.”
Dangdang says he has tried to save money, but found that it’s almost impossible. Living costs are going up all the time, but the factory hasn’t raised his unit rate for at least four years, he says. Trying to cut down on spending has not worked, either. Sometimes, it is just too tempting to buy street snacks and shop online, Dangdang adds.
“The only thing that can change my life is winning the lottery,” he says.
End of the line
There’s a sense in Kangle that things may have reached an end game. One thing that both the factory owners and workers agree about is that the local garment industry has passed its heyday. Clothing factories rely on keeping costs low to make a profit, but central Guangzhou is no longer a cheap place to do business.
Now, the local government is proposing a sweeping solution: Moving the garment industry out of Guangzhou and into a new industrial park in Qingyuan — a smaller city around 80 kilometers to the north.
Local officials have been planning this for a long time. The Guangdong provincial government first instructed Guangzhou and other cities to “transfer labor-intensive industries” out of their urban centers as early as 2008, but the financial crisis disrupted those efforts.
As Guangzhou’s economy recovered from the downturn, the city prioritized relocating highly polluting and energy-intensive industries, such as electroplating, chemicals, and cement factories. The garment workshops in the urban villages were largely left alone.
But the relocations are now back on the agenda. Between December and February, Guangzhou’s Haizhu District demolished 133,800 square meters of “illegal constructions” in its urban villages — many of them textile workshops. Meanwhile, 460 companies have agreed to move to the Qingyuan industrial park, according to media reports.
The government argues that the relocations are necessary to save the local garment industry, which is hindered by the cramped conditions in Guangzhou’s urban villages. Wang Xianqing, a professor at the Guangdong University of Finance and Economics, told local media that the moves offered companies an opportunity to transform their businesses.
“Textile and garment enterprises can customize and display their products in Guangzhou, and process and produce them in Qingyuan,” Wang said. “The integration of online and offline, manufacturing and consumption, can drive the simultaneous upgrading of the value chains of both places.”
Whether this strategy is enough remains to be seen. Competition in the garment industry is fierce: Guangzhou’s workshops face threats not only from lower-income regions in China, but also from factories across Southeast Asia and South Asia.
Huang, the professor, says large-scale relocations out of the urban villages are very likely to happen, but he doubts whether the Qingyuan park can restore local factories to prosperity.
“The whole market environment has been going downhill, and there will be more and more competitors in other areas,” Huang says. “Cultivating a market takes 10 or 20 years, but the government’s subsidies will certainly not last that long. The destiny of the textile industry will eventually be determined by the market.”
Nevertheless, the relocations are pressing ahead. At a recruitment event in Qingyuan, staff give a tour of one factory that has already started production at the new industrial park. Around 60% of the company’s work stations are occupied.
One of the workers tells Sixth Tone she decided to take a job at the factory after returning to Kangle in early February. The main attraction was the generous salary on offer.
Thanks to government subsidies, the factory offers new workers a monthly salary of 8,000-12,000 yuan, free accommodation for one year, and free use of an electric scooter, a job ad posted at the park states.
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Recruiters hold up sample garments for migrant workers to inspect in Kangle Village, Guangdong province, Feb. 17, 2022. Each morning, the streets of the urban village serve as a large open-air job market. Wu Peiyue/Sixth Tone)