Home is where the money is: Migrant workers go home

While the economy boomed, rural areas saw populations dwindle as workers headed for distant productions lines and construction sites to earn their living.

 By GAO Jia


While China’s economy boomed over the past few decades, small cities and rural areas have seen their working populations dwindle as people headed for the metropolises to seek their fortune in millions of factories, restaurants, and construction companies. 

For the workers, there are some very obvious disadvantages, home prices in big cities are staggeringly high that few of the workers can afford one and settle down. As the rural areas continue to catch up with the cities, many of these workers are returning to their hometowns. 

From 2015 to 2019, 3.6 million migrant workers returned home. The pandemic accelerated the process. In 2020 alone, 4.56 million migrant workers stayed in their hometowns for jobs, more than the previous five years combined.

Jiemian News spoke to three migrant workers who have returned to their places of origin after drifting from city to city for years.

Winning while you’re singing

WU Enshi has returned to his hometown to do livestreaming after working in Shenzhen for 15 years.

I left Hechi in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region when I was 19. I had just finished middle school because I started school late. Most people were heading for Guangdong Province, and I was no exception. I went to Dongguan, then on to Foshan. Everyone was talking about Shenzhen and I knew that there was a place in Shenzhen called Dafen Village, famous for its painters. I like calligraphy so I really wanted to go there.

A guy from my hometown had a job in a factory in Shenzhen and in 2005, when I was 23, I went to join him, but I didn’t pass the medical examination, so I ended up doing manual labor as a porter in a small company for a while. I changed jobs all the time. I worked in a bicycle factory. I made my way to Dafen and became a painter’s apprentice. When that didn’t work out, I became a postman.

I loved Shenzhen. It is a prosperous place full of opportunities and in 2016, I began singing in a shopping mall. I made 140 yuan (US$32) in two hours. I had been paid 317 yuan the whole month before. By then I was in my 30s – an old-timer. Other workers were younger, and I was a slow learner in any case. So, after my first street performance, I decided not to look for another job but to become a full-time street singer. It was the best thing I did in 15 years in Shenzhen. It brought in more than 10 thousand yuan a month – yes, I was making more in one day than I had in one month - and it was fulfilling because singing is the only thing I am good at. In 2018, I started to post my singing videos online. One had close to a million views.

Soon I had almost half a million followers and an agency in Wuhan offered me tens of thousands of yuan which I planned to use to decorate my house in Hechi. It wasn’t exactly a scam, but the company definitely took advantage of my commercial innocence. The money was only an advance – not an actual payment as such, but a loan to be paid back.

Last September, I returned home to do the decoration myself and started livestreaming. I found it surprisingly profitable at first. Generally, around 100 people watched, and I earned thousands of yuan on a good day from their tips. I decided not to go back to Shenzhen and canceled my lease there.

It has been a year since I returned home. Of course, life is better here. I have two kids and can spend much more time with them. But I have realized livestreaming is definitely not a career. My followers haven’t increased for six months. In the last two months, I received no more than 300 yuan a day. I’m worried and afraid that I have to leave home again. There are no jobs in Hechi. Waiters only earn about 2,000 yuan a month. I’ll go back to Shenzhen and sing on the streets again if I have to.

Jobs for everyone

LI Haixia worked in a clothing factory in Beijing for 20 years and now runs her own business.

In 1993, when I was 18, a clothing factory sent agents to my hometown, Yuncheng County, to hire about 30 workers. At that time, girls in my hometown didn't have much choice but to do farm work at home. I saw a chance to get away and took it, though my family tried to stop me from going. Nevertheless, I got on the train to Beijing and earned 100 yuan in my first month. Three months later, my salary had increased to 150 yuan. At the end of the year, I had saved 500 yuan which I gave to my dad. My salary meant a lot to my family and my younger brother and sister could stay in school which was why I stayed in Beijing for 20 years. I got married and had a child in Beijing.

One Spring Festival, I met a friend who had worked in Beijing for three years then returned home to get married. She had four children but had no savings. She envied my stable job. At that moment, I decided to come back home and create jobs.

By 2012, I had been a worker, group leader, workshop manager, and factory director. I knew how to run a factory and decided to open my own garment workshop in Yuncheng. In 2013, my company made a loss of over 300 thousand yuan. But things soon improved, and we started to make a profit. Our company turned over more than 10 million yuan in 2020 and was awarded a rural startup prize of 100 thousand yuan.

I’ve made the right choice in returning home. I make ten times what I used to. More importantly, I’m happy that I provide a living for more than a hundred other women, many former migrant workers themselves. Some had been working for many years but still couldn’t afford an apartment in the big cities; others married and had children so couldn’t leave. When I meet women who have returned from Qingdao and Shanghai, it is always for their children’s sake.

Running the factory is not easy here, things in my town are slower. Workers have to take care of their families and cannot work overtime, so I cannot speed up production. Things go much more slowly here. It’s not good for my profits or for their salaries.

Waiting for the axe to fall

GUO Qingguang worked in a factory in Xiamen for ten years and is now a delivery driver in his hometown Caoxian, a small Shandong town famous for its coffin-making industry.

I chose to return home in 2014 for my family. My wife and child had gone back and my child had started school.

I went to Xiamen two years after I left high school. It was surprisingly difficult to find a job because companies had strict recruitment requirements. It happened that I had a friend who worked in Xiamen, so I moved there.

In Xiamen, I went to agencies every day and finally got a job in a Kodak film factory. I became workshop manager and my salary increased to six thousand yuan after ten years in the factory. I was happy with the money and the work, but I knew it would be better to come home and be with my family.

Times have changed in the cities. When I first started working in Xiamen, finding a job in factories was not easy. The factories were strict, workers had tough KPIs to complete. They would be screamed at for making mistakes. Now, managers are required to treat employees with respect, the factories are not that hard to get in anymore.

But I couldn’t find a job for nearly two years after I returned to Caoxian. I tried a local medical equipment factory, but it was quite different from Xiamen. The hours were long, and the management was different. I quit after a few weeks.

Then I found a job as a postman. But the lousy salary and lousier motorcycle disappointed me, so I started to deliver takeout orders for Meituan four years ago. Deliveries mean more freedom.

I work from nine in the morning till midnight, though the job is not full-on for all that time. I have time for meals and to pick my kid up from school. I receive about 60 orders a day and earn about seven thousand yuan a month. It is a good salary. Waiters earn only three thousand yuan.

I’m worried about my future because deliveries are not stable work and you need to be pretty fit. I think I will be kicked out in a few years, but for now, it is the best I can find.