Coronavirus: China’s stranded migrant workers desperate to return home as savings dry up

04-Aug-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Zhu Bowen was excited about the possibility of landing an IT job when she travelled to Tokyo in December. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic having completely upended her life, the 24-year-old is out of options and looking to return to China.

After graduating from college in the northeast Chinese city of Dalian last year, Zhu took a six-month training course in computer science and then went to Tokyo to receive language training in business Japanese at an IT outsourcing company, which offered IT support for local firms.

And this past spring, she was supposed to be dispatched to a company in Japan to do software testing. But the move never happened. The pandemic, and subsequent corporate cost-cutting, stripped away the job opportunity.

Before March, Zhu’s net income was around 127,000 yen (US$1,210) a month. From March to May, that was cut by 20 per cent. In June, it was slashed another 20 per cent. Finally, she said, the company asked her to voluntarily resign with no compensation.

“I eventually resigned,” she said. “But there is another Chinese peer who refuses to sign the papers, and he still gets about 30,000 yen. That’s not even enough for you to eat. He is also looking for other jobs. But the job market is so bad. If I go for an interview with another local firm, the company will definitely consider Japanese candidates first.”

Zhu is not alone in her plight. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on numerous overseas workers from Chinaone of the world’s largest labour-exporting countries. These workers include crews on cargo ships and cruises, as well as construction workers on belt and road projects.

Some have been stranded abroad for months, with no income, no job and little hope of returning home.

Earlier this year, Xiong Gang, a native of central China’s Hubei province who emigrated to Singapore 20 years ago, was busy arranging for donations, including medical equipment, to be sent to hospitals in his hometown. Hubei is where the first coronavirus cases were detected, in the city of Wuhan.

But since April, he has turned his focus toward the thousands of Chinese migrant workers living in Singapore’s cramped dormitories. He delivers food and other necessities to themmany of whom work in the construction industry. But these packed dorms have become a hotbed for the coronavirus, and the government was forced to transfer some workers to different facilities and to conduct mass testing among them. Estimates indicate that about 200,000 such workers live in 43 dormitories across the city state.

“Many Chinese workers want to go home, mainly because they feel like they’ve been sitting in jail. If there were work here, then they might want to stay,” Xiong said. “The food is not good, they can’t move freely, and they feel very depressed.

“Many receive a monthly government subsidy of 700 Singapore dollars (US$509), but migrant workers largely rely on overtime work for their savings, and they wire money back to the mainland. Most of them feel suffocated.”

In Africa, where the World Health Organization has warned of a larger outbreak than current numbers suggest, there is no shortage of calls by migrant workers to return home.

In a video posted on social media in June, Ren Jiagui, a 58-year-old former engineer, pleaded for help alongside other Chinese workers who remain trapped in Nigeria. Ren was laid off in March and now lives off savings and donations.

“When we ask the local Chinese embassy about any flights [to take us back home], their answer is always, ‘I don’t know’. At the same time, they tell you to pay attention to local laws and regulations, customs, and to strengthen your personal health and take virus-prevention measures,” Ren told the Post.

“Some people asked the embassy if they could borrow some money, because they had lost income. The reply was, ‘Ask your family to wire some’.”

Lisa Dai has been stuck in Kenya since the end of March after the country banned international flights. She had just completed a 10-month internship and was set to graduate this summer. But with job prospects for fresh graduates bleak even in China, Dai is deeply concerned for her future.

“I started looking for jobs [back in China] in March,” she said, adding that she applied but couldn’t meet the interview requirements while abroad. “I missed too many opportunities in April and May; I won’t return to Africa for work in the near future.”

Kenya said it would resume international flights this weekend, and Dai was hoping to get a spot on one of the limited chartered flights arranged by the embassy, given that tickets for commercial flights would be very expensive. Dai said it is difficult to book through official channels without running into fraudulent ticket agents.

“Some of the stranded want to wait until September to see if the fares are cheaper,” she said.

Another Chinese worker in Kenya, who asked not to be identified, said that different Chinese embassies in Africa had taken different measures to help stranded workers.

“The Chinese embassy in Rwanda chartered a few direct flights that cost about $1,000 per person, but not every embassy can do that,” the worker said. “In Kenya, apart from migrant workers, there are tourists, children and pregnant women who have been stuck here for half a year.”

Back in Tokyo, where Zhu Bowen is staying with a friend and has nearly exhausted her savings, she recently opted to bite the bullet and book an expensive flight back to China in September, after weighing all of the pros and cons. She even considered taking on part-time jobs or earning another degree.

“I probably need to ask my parents for money next month,” Zhu said, adding that her father already wired her 14,000 yuan (US$2,000) to pay for the return flight next month.

But rather than return to her hometown in northeast China’s Heilongjiang province, Zhu will fly directly to Hangzhou cityabout a two-hour drive from Shanghaiwhere she hopes job prospects are better, and because returning to Heilongjiang before moving to Hangzhou would put her at risk of being quarantined twice.

“I feel I have wasted so much time here over the past year,” she said. “I am studying for the [Test of English as a Foreign Language], and I want to do something related to English back in China.”

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright (C) 2020 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd All rights reserved.

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