Coronavirus lockdowns torment an army of poor migrant workers in China

In a photo taken on Feb 10, 2020, a worker sprays disinfectant at the entrance of Beijing West railway station in an effort to protect against the coronavirus. PHOTO: NYTIMES

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - Clutching a grey plastic suitcase filled with most of his belongings - a blanket, a toothbrush, a pair of white sneakers and a comb - Mr Wang Sheng goes from factory to factory in southern China begging for a job. The answer is always no.

Mr Wang, 49, used to be able to find work in Shenzhen, a sprawling industrial megacity.

But factories are turning him away because he is from Hubei province, the centre of China's coronavirus epidemic, even though he hasn't lived there in years.

"There's nothing I can do," said Mr Wang, who has only a few dollars left in savings, lives off plain noodles and rents a small room for about US$60 (S$84.12) a month.

"I'm just by myself, isolated and helpless."

China's roughly 300 million rural migrants have long lived on the margins of society, taking on gruelling work for meagre wages and limited access to public healthcare and education.

But now they are among the hardest hit as China's leader, Mr Xi Jinping, calls for a "people's war" to contain the virus and authorities impose controls across broad swathes of the country.

As outsiders, rural migrants, no matter where they are from, are an easy target. Many factories are afraid to restart operations in case their workers are carrying the virus, raising concerns that the government's controls could smother the economy.

Local officials have barred many migrants from crossing city lines. Landlords have kicked them out of their apartments. Some are crammed into hotels or sleeping under bridges or on sidewalks.

"We have struggled so much already," Ms Liu Wen, 42, a factory worker in Zhengzhou, a city in central China, who was evicted from her apartment because she had returned from her husband's hometown in the southern province of Guangdong and her landlord worried she might be carrying the virus.

She now is living with her husband and two children in a hotel. "Now we've lost hope."

On Sunday, Mr Xi acknowledged that the situation in China remained "grim and complex", but urged party officials to not only continue their efforts to contain the virus but also to focus on restarting production.

"We must turn pressure into motivation, be good at turning crisis into opportunity, orderly restore production and living order," he said.

But the strict lockdowns imposed across the country make it difficult for rural workers to return to cities; only about a third have done so, according to official statistics. Many workers are stuck in the countryside after travelling there last month to celebrate the Lunar New Year holiday.

Mr Xi, already under scrutiny for the Chinese government's slow and erratic response to the coronavirus outbreak, now faces pressure to quell anger among low-income families and dispel broader fears of an economic downturn.

The party has long staked its legitimacy on the idea that it can deliver prosperity and protect the working class.

"The Chinese Communist Party leadership does not like to be criticised for neglecting or abandoning workers," said Professor Jane Duckett, director of the Scottish Centre for China Research at the University of Glasgow.

"Their ideological underpinnings - Marxism-Leninism, socialism - lie in being a party of the 'workers and peasants'."

Prof Duckett said the party was probably wary of discontent among workers. Mr Xi has said that the government should watch employment closely and that companies should avoid large-scale layoffs.

The virus, which has killed at least 2,400 people and sickened nearly 77,000 in China alone, has brought parts of the Chinese economy, the world's second-largest, to a near standstill.

While some factories have started up again in recent days, many are still closed or operating well below capacity, with parts in short supply and workers stranded hundreds of miles away.

Businesses across a variety of sectors - manufacturing, construction and transportation - have ordered their employees to stay home, usually without pay.

That has created strains for many migrants, who earn barely enough to keep up with the rising cost of living in Chinese cities and often hold little in savings.

While wages are low, migrants can still earn more in the cities than they would in the countryside, where jobs are scarce.

They are willing to go to cities for a shot at a better life, even if they must live in crowded workers' dormitories or rundown apartments.

Mr Yang Chengjun, 58, who lives in north-east China and sometimes works as a carpenter, says he and his son are living off the land now, relying on rice and vegetables they grow and struggling "just to stay alive".

Mr Yang worries the family will run out of money within a month.

"The pressure on migrant workers was always great," Mr Yang said. "The epidemic adds insult to injury."

Their struggles have been made worse by local officials who have helped fuel a perception that rural migrants pose a threat to public health and should be treated as potential carriers of the virus.

In some cities, migrants have been forced into quarantine in facilities run by the government, according to reports on social media.

In others, like Wuxi in the east, workers from afar have been barred from entering and warned that they would be "seriously dealt with" if they resisted.

China's strict population controls have worsened the plight of many migrant families.

The Mao-era household registration system, known as hukou, makes it difficult for people from the countryside to change their legal residence to cities.

As a result, they are considered outsiders - even if they have lived in cities for decades - and have limited access to healthcare, schools, pensions and other social benefits.

As the coronavirus has spread, some workers who have come down with pneumonia and other symptoms say they have been unable to find affordable care in major cities.

While the government now provides free care to those found to have the coronavirus, many hospitals are overwhelmed and lack the resources to officially diagnose the virus.

As a result, some migrant workers living in cities say they have been forced to pay thousands of dollars in medical expenses to treat sick relatives.

In Hubei, where the outbreak began in December, many workers worry that the economic pain will continue for months or longer. The province, which is home to more than 10 million migrant workers, remains shut off from the rest of China, and business has ground to a halt.

Mr Huang Chuanyuan, a 46-year-old construction worker in Hubei, has stopped buying meat to save money. His employer, a Chinese construction company, told him that he had no choice but to wait at home.

"I don't want to think about the future now," said Mr Huang, who has a wife and three children. "The more I think about it, the more stressed I get."

As their struggles have mounted, some workers have pushed local officials to do more to help reopen businesses. But their pleas are often met with silence, as local governments work to contain the virus.

Mr Wang, the migrant worker who has been going from factory to factory in Shenzhen, worries it may be months before he can find a job. He spends his days scouring online job ads and watching news about the virus.

Frustrated about his job prospects, Mr Wang recently posted a poem on social media about the sense of isolation and distress he felt. He criticised the local government for not doing more to help workers.

"You suffer loneliness by yourself, but you are still discriminated against," he wrote.

"The Labour Department, now silent. And me: alone in Shenzhen."

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