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World

Sieren's China: Stopgap workers

The economy is on the rise in southern China, but there is still a shortage of labor. Illegal workers from neighboring countries are filling the gap - but only for now, says DW columnist Frank Sieren.

Increasingly, workers from across southeast Asia toil in factories in southern China - without papers. For years, the region has suffered from a shortage of labor because many Chinese migrant workers prefer to work in the west of the country.

Workers who have lived in the Guangdong province on China's southern coast for a while want office jobs. So to stay competitive, manufacturing companies illegally employ workers from Cambodia, Vietnam or Bangladesh. They are willing to sew clothes, glue soles on shoes and assemble electronic components - six days a week, often more than ten hours a day and for less than 4,000 yuan ($650, 600 euros) per month.

That's more than they can earn in their native countries, so a growing number of willing and - for the factory owners - cheap laborers are making their way to South China. In some cases, they make up half of a factory's workforce. And they are more popular with the operation managers than legal Chinese workers who actually have high expectations and increasingly protest against the working conditions.

High-tech instead of cheap products

In former times, migrant workers would line up at the factory gates; today, managers have to travel to western China to recruit labor. The local government plans to turn Guangdong province into a high-tech location, so it is increasing the minimum wage by 15 percent per year, forcing most manufacturers of cheap goods to give up. Some moved their factories to regions further west, where costs are still lower. Some moved to Vietnam, Bangladesh and even Africa, while others refuse to leave the region - because it's hard to top South China's logistic efficiency.

Frank Sieren

DW's Frank Sieren

Despite those developments, the shortage of labor remains so severe that factory directors often have no choice but to employ illegal workers to fulfill their contracts on time. The penalty for tardy deliveries is significantly higher than the penalty for employing illegal workers. Employers only pay up to 10,000 yuan if the police pick up their workers without papers, so their number is on the rise - even though China's exports shrank by 16.4 percent in March. If this trend continues, the problem of illegal workers should take care of itself, because most Chinese are willing to work for less pay rather than lose their job.

Illegals fill gaps

Of course, that's something the government is aware of too, so the issue isn't top priority. It would like to prevent the surge of illegal workers from getting out of hand, but at the same time, this is still seen as a transitional phase. You can't catapult a region from low-wage structures to high-tech structures just like that, and until then, South China needs those illegal migrant workers. They are stopgaps. Last year, police rounded up more than 5,000 illegal workers in Guangdong province alone. But that has barely put a dent in the illegal workforce.

Labor shortages, illegal migration and well-educated young locals who expect more from life than part-time work - those are problems we in the West have, too. The US and Europe solve the problem by granting work migrants citizenship. In China, the government chose a different route: it would like the illegal migrant workers to be an interim phenomenon until the most advanced Chinese provinces have built up a high-tech industry and the low-tech industry has moved into the less affluent western hinterland. At that point, the demand for illegal migrant workers is supposed to dry up of its own accord.

Cheap labor indispensible?

But critics say that's naive. They fear that in the long run, China still won't manage without cheap foreign labor. And they have a plausible explanation: due to its one-child-policy, Chinese society ages relatively quickly, so there simply won't be enough young cheap workers. If this is true, the Chinese government would have to resort to the western solution and give Bangladeshis or Cambodians citizenship. For the time being, however, Beijing is trying out in the South whether things can be done differently.

DW columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.

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