No place like home for migrant workers

By Yang Wanli| (China Daily)| Updated : 2018-05-15

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Yuan Hengjun and his wife Yang Zhengxiang in their 112-square-meter apartment built in 2015 in Nanzhanglou village, Qingzhou city, Shandong province. Wang Jing/China Daily

With a population of 944,000, which barely makes it a fourth-tier city in China, Qingzhou in Shandong province is almost unknown to the outside world.

Still, its downtown roads are named for some of the best-known cities in the world, including Tokyo, Paris and New York. That's not because of a false sense of globalization; instead, the names reflect the fact that a large number of local residents have traveled overseas, including to African nations and the United States, to find work.

Nanzhanglou, a village in Qingzhou, was a center of the trend in the 1990s, and about 600 of the settlement's 4,200 residents have worked or are working overseas in sectors that include construction, electronics, farming and retail business.

"There is no need to pay for interpreters if foreign guests visit our village," said Yuan Xiangsheng, the village head. "We have residents who speak foreign languages fluently, including French, Japanese, English and Portuguese. You name it, we speak it."

However, since the years of heavy job-related emigration in the 1990s and early 2000s, the number of people heading overseas has declined.

The Wangfu Shopping Plaza in Qingzhou is home to the largest number of agencies in the city that provide services, advice and contacts to workers hoping to gain employment overseas. At one time, more than 40 agencies were located at the three-story center, but now only a quarter of them remain in operation.

"The market is not booming as it was in the 2000s." said Zhang Yumei, a consultant at the Guolian Labor Force Exportation Service Center, adding that the average age of those seeking work overseas is older than before.

According to the Ministry of Commerce, the number of people applying to work overseas has fallen in the past four years, and between 2014 and 2017, the number moving overseas for work fell from 562,000 to 522,000.

By the end of 2014, an extra 153,000 Chinese were working overseas, compared with 2013. However, last year, the number was just 10,000 more than in 2016.

"Many of our applicants are ages 45 to 60. They find it difficult to adapt to the domestic labor market and earn incomes equivalent to people working overseas," Zhang said, displaying the dozens of applications the center has received in the past few weeks.

Most are middle-aged, while a few are age 20 and younger but they have poor education backgrounds, most just hold high school graduation certificates.

The most popular destinations include Singapore, South Korea and Japan, which require plumbers, workers for automobile assembly lines and electricians. Some countries require applicants to hold professional certificates, while others provide training for new employees. The agency charges applicants 50,000 to 80,000 yuan ($7,960 to $9,550) depending on the type of work they are seeking.

In countries such as Australia, France and New Zealand, chefs are in high demand, but the agency charges a higher fee to arrange those jobs, usually 150,000 yuan to 170,000 yuan.


Apartment blocks built in 2015 for locals returning from working overseas. Wang Jing/China Daily

Boom time

Things were very different during the boom time in the late 1990s and early part of this century, when going overseas was seen as a courageous move. Those who returned with the money they had made were treated as heroes, and special arrangements were made to help them reintegrate with life in rural China.

As in many villages, the people of Nanzhanglou traditionally live in single-story houses, and some families have to share a public latrine because the underground sewage system doesn't reach every house.

However, in 2015, two modern apartment buildings, resembling those found in large cities, were built in the northern part of the village and boasted modern amenities such as gas cookers, flushing toilets and electric water heaters.

"Many people who returned after working overseas for years found it difficult to acclimatize to the poor living conditions, especially the dry latrines. So we built these modern apartments to meet their requirements," Yuan said.

Yuan Hengjun, 69, and his 70-year-old wife Yang Zhengxiang share a 112-square-meter apartment in Nanzhanglou. Yuan Hengjun doesn't dress like a farmer; instead, he wears a white shirt and cashmere sweater, and his hair is neatly combed. In the living room, a calligraphy scroll hangs on the wall, bearing a traditional maxim, "Happiness consists of contentment".

"The contentment in my life comes from my two sons, who work overseas and changed their lives from farmers to businessmen," he said. The couple's sons, Yuan Antian, 45, and 43-year-old Yuan Anguo both manage supermarkets in Argentina, where they have permanent residence.

In 1995, Yuan Antian was one of the first villagers to venture overseas to make money, when he joined seven other residents who chose to move to Argentina and work on a farm. Before that, the farthest he had been was Weifang, a city about 60 kilometers from Qingzhou.

His life improved immediately. "My eldest son got his first month's salary and called us immediately-he sounded excited and astonished," Yuan Hengjun recalled.

"He told us he had earned $200, which was a lot of money to most Chinese people. In 1995, a rich family with three people in our village only earned about 3,000 yuan a year."

The work brought Yuan Antian a bright future. A year later, his fiancee moved to Argentina and they got married. In 1997, the couple had their first child, who was granted Argentinean nationality the same year. The young family continued to look for new chances and soon sensed a business opportunity.

More than 100 workers on the farm needed to be fed every day, but their daily supplies could be only purchased at a supermarket more than 100 km away. Yuan Antian made a bold decision: he borrowed 400,000 yuan from his father and opened a supermarket to meet the demands of his peers.

The move paid off quickly. Making an annual income of $80,000, he was able to pay back all the money he had borrowed within a year. Now, he owns four supermarkets in Argentina. His younger brother decided to follow Yuan Antian's lead and also moved to Argentina to start his own supermarket.

The original eight villagers who moved to Argentina became legends in the village. Many other residents followed in their footsteps and headed overseas. The trend quickly spread from Nanzhanglou to other parts of the city, according to Yuan Xiangsheng, the village head.

"There was a slogan in Qingzhou-'A worker overseas brings fortune to the whole family'. At least half of the people in the village have worked overseas," he said.

In the late 1990s, Qingzhou became one of the first few cities in China to establish a center to help arrange work for those determined to head overseas.

Applicant numbers falling

Now, the boom time is over. The decline in the number of people who plan to work overseas has also been witnessed in Zhenjiang city, Jiangsu province, which, along with Qingzhou, was one of the places where residents frequently moved to look for work overseas.

Statistics from the city's International Travelling Healthcare Center, which provides health checks for residents who apply to work overseas, show that applicant numbers fell by 10 percent in the first quarter of the year.

The reasons include concerns about diseases, such as the ebola virus, in some African countries, and the suspension of a number of construction projects, according to Feng Jinxiang, the center's director.

"Concerns about a stable future life with their family members and the rise in wages in China are prompting more young people to stay at home," Feng said.

"The wages paid to Chinese workers overseas are no longer the lowest in the international market, and the younger generations, those born after the 1980s and 1990s, do not value working overseas as highly as previous generations."

In the first quarter of this year, China's per capita disposable income stood at 7,815 yuan, a year-on-year rise of 6.6 percent, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Per capita disposable income has risen to 10,781 yuan in urban areas and 4,226 yuan in rural areas, rises of 5.7 percent and 6.8 percent in real terms, respectively.

Last year, the average monthly income of rural people who moved to large cities in search of work was 3,450 yuan, a year-on-year rise of 5.3 percent. The government aims to double per capita incomes of both urban and rural residents by 2020, from 2010 levels, to build a moderately prosperous society.

Wang Peiyun, a consultant with the Shandong Lexin Labor Force Exportation Co, said the number of people in the province moving overseas for work witnessed a significant decline between 2008 and 2012 as domestic wages almost doubled during the period.

"China's stable economic condition and the booming new industries, such as the internet and internet of things, are prompting more young people to stay at home," he said.

"As a result of preferential policies from the government, including financial support and tax breaks, many young people are now becoming inspired to run their own businesses in innovative industries."

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