Image: Worker heads to train station
AP
A worker makes his way to a train station in Guangzhou, China, on Wednesday. Some 210 million Chinese are expected to take the train during this year's Lunar New Year holiday.
updated 2/4/2010 2:09:40 PM ET 2010-02-04T19:09:40

Pulling suitcases and hefting heavy bags on their shoulders, millions of Chinese workers are boarding trains to head home for the Lunar New Year — a holiday that triggers the world's biggest annual migration of people.

This year some may not come back from the holiday, which begins Feb. 14, a growing worry for factory owners facing labor shortages but also a sign of improving opportunities for workers throughout China, not just in the coastal regions that have long been its manufacturing base.

"During the holiday, I'll check to see if I can get a decent job around my hometown," Li Beiyong said, standing by her big purple polka-dotted suitcase this week in the crowded station in Guangzhou. "The pay might be lower, but the cost of living isn't as high. I might do better there."

The buoyant job market is a dramatic reversal from a year ago, when the global financial crisis was battering China's exporters. Millions of migrants were told to stay home because there wouldn't be much work in Guangzhou and other usually booming southern cities. Then, as business started picking up during the middle of last year, factories were caught short-handed.

China has experienced labor shortages frequently during the past decade, but many businesses now say they expect it to be worse this year than ever before. Migrants are finding jobs closer to home as the poor interior provinces become more prosperous. The supply of young laborers is decreasing as an effect of China's one-child policy , and fewer are willing to work for sweatshop wages as their parents did.

Stimulus creating jobs outside hubs
Farm-friendly policies are encouraging many to stay in rural areas on the land. And China's massive stimulus package has created jobs across the country, sucking labor from coastal factories.

"We've raised the monthly salary of our workers twice during the last year, from 1,200 yuan ($176) to 1,700 yuan ($249), but it's still not that easy to keep workers," said Lu Lei, general manger of Shanghai Reisheng Industrial Product Co., Ltd. in Shanghai.

But even with the hikes, his salaries struggle to keep pace with rising living costs in the city that have discouraged workers from applying for jobs at his plastic pipe factory, he said.

Over time, higher wages could translate into rising prices for Chinese-made goods worldwide. They may also increase the buying power of workers, which in turn could help China reduce its dependence on exports by boosting domestic demand — including potentially for imported goods.

Li, the worker at the Guangzhou station, said she earns about 1,500 yuan a month in a hotel in the east coast city of Ningbo, south of Shanghai.

But now she has a range of options: Besides looking for a job in her hometown, the 24-year-old woman also is considering shifting to neighboring Guangdong province, where she worked in an electronics factory for 500 yuan a month in 2005.

"I would never work for such little money again," said Li, whose family grows rice in the Guangxi region in China's south. "My bottom line is 1,000 yuan, but I can easily get more than that. The market is good for workers now."

210 million rail travelers expected
As she talked, a river of people flowed into the massive square at Guangzhou's train station. About 210 million passengers — more than Russia's population — are expected to ride the rails during the 40-day New Year travel season. The holiday officially lasts six days, but many workers take a month off.

With beads of sweat dripping off their faces, some used bamboo shoulder poles to haul their belongings in bags made of a red plaid nylon weave. Others carried plastic buckets stuffed with instant noodles, peanuts and rolls of toilet paper for trips that can last up to 20 hours on hard wooden seats.

The packed square produced a cacophony of trilling police whistles, scratchy loudspeaker announcements and the low rumble of rolling luggage being dragged over concrete. Passengers who arrived a few hours early had to wait in a crowded, cage-like area made of yellow metal police barricades.

That's where textile worker Yao Jian cracked pumpkin seeds with his tobacco-stained brown teeth as he waited for his train to Hunan province.

The stocky 37-year-old man made 3,000 yuan a month as a machine operator outside Guangzhou, but he wasn't pleased with the conditions and said he would look for a new job after the New Year.

Sweatshop stigma
"A lot of factories are short on workers, but they're the ones that don't pay enough," said Yao, who was confident about finding another job in textiles. "They're sweatshops. Who will work for them anymore?"

The perennial labor shortage has forced American Robert Michael to rethink how he runs his factory making metal household items near Guangzhou.

From a peak of 1,200 workers in 2006, the number has shrunk each year. "We'll come back after the Chinese New Year at 325 or 350 workers if we're lucky," he said.

He is spending money to automate his factory and dropping customers who don't place big orders.

"We're only going to have three big customers," he said. "Before, we had nine or 10. But we'll have special customers now, and we'll build the business with them."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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