The loneliness of a long-distance worker

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 May, 2012, 12:00am


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Xu Guanghui had not seen his family for two years when he sat down for a celebratory feast in Luzhou, Sichuan province. The 34-hour bus journey over bumpy roads to get to his family from his job in Guangdong had taken its toll, and he was apprehensive about the homecoming.

Over Sichuanese dishes of shuizhu huangshan (spicy yellow eel) and fenggan niurou (wind-dried sliced beef), washed down with baijiu, a strong white liquor, the migrant worker was welcomed by his wife of 26 years, his elderly mother and his two children and was introduced to a new granddaughter, already 16 months old. About 20 relatives crowded around two large dining tables, cracking jokes and laughing loudly.

'Come home, come home,' a brother-in-law, Li Tinghui, cried out, while pouring baijiu for Xu. 'You will earn far more over here than in Dongguan, like me.'

The circumstances 49-year-old Xu and his family find themselves in today reflect China's ambitious economic development. Wealth, once concentrated along the coast, has spread inland. At the same time, expectations have altered with the generations, reshaping the country's labour force and the businesses that depend on it. Xu was among the first wave of mainland workers who opted to leave their families in search of work after China's economy opened three decades ago. His children, though, have different ideas.

The goal of the first generation of migrants who went to Guangdong's factories 'was to earn enough money so that they could send it back to the families', says Ken DeWoskin, Beijing-based director of Deloitte China Research and Insight Centre. 'The second generation coming in now, their goal is to have a Maserati, to be able to buy Gucci purses or a 10-million-yuan apartment.'

What's more, many migrant workers are choosing to return home. All of Xu's 30 friends and relatives who went to southern China for work 20 years ago have gradually come back to Luzhou, some as recently as last year. His wife, Huang Xianjun, returned to help look after their grandchild.

Sichuan, which traditionally produces more migrant workers than any other province, has seen the number of labourers seeking work outside the province stabilise since 2009. Meanwhile, factories are relocating nearer the worker pool. A prime example is iPad and iPhone-maker Foxconn, which recently opened a factory in the inland province of Zhengzhou and recruited 95 per cent of its 130,000-strong workforce locally.

The organic growth of second-tier cities like Luzhou also means young people entering the workforce can find jobs at home. An ancient city on the most westerly part of the Yangtze River, Luzhou is home to one of the oldest stated-owned wineries, 439-year-old Luzhou Laojiao. Today, the city's skyline is ringed with construction cranes. A fourth mega-industrial park in five years is under construction to house the city's four pillar industries of wine, petrochemicals, heavy-duty machinery manufacturing and energy. Last year, Luzhou's economy grew 16 per cent, outstripping the national 9.2 per cent rise.

'I have come home only five times in the past 20 years, and every time I found new residential skyscrapers towering above where the farmlands were,' said Xu, whose parents used to farm rice 60 kilometres outside Luzhou.

'Traffic jams are dreadful. It takes me almost an hour to cross the Yangtze River bridge and get into the city centre, compared with 10 minutes previously.'

Xu is now the only member of his family who remains in Guangdong. He more or less regards himself as a resident, having moved to the south 19 years ago, and has worked as a security guard at Kam Pin, a Hong Kong-owned curtain-wall plant in Dongguan, for 15 years. When he left Luzhou, his son was six years old and his daughter three.

He goes home once every four years on average, buying a bus ticket that costs 260 yuan (HK$320) one-way instead of 780 yuan for the two-hour one-way flight from Shenzhen to Luzhou.

He earns about 2,500 yuan (HK$3,050) a month for his efforts and sends most of his salary back to Luzhou, rarely splurging on so much as a bottle of water during his factory shift.

His wife spent 10 years in Dongguan working in a handbag factory. While she was there, the couple rented a room in a sub-divided flat for 200 yuan a month. They managed to support their two children, Xu's widowed mother and pay the 24,000 yuan fee to put their daughter through university. They also saved enough to buy an 80-square-metre apartment for 90,000 yuan in downtown Luzhou, with the help of loans from friends, who have since been repaid.

The value of his apartment has tripled to 270,000 yuan over the past five years. Still, Xu said it was only a gain on paper and did not make him feel that financially secure. And anyway, given current property prices, he worried it would be too expensive to sell the apartment and buy another home.

Now he lives by himself in the same room he used to share with his wife in Dongguan, near his workplace. And he is a stranger in his own home in Luzhou. On this visit, each time he tried to hug his 16-month-old granddaughter she pushed his arms away and fled.

Two years ago, Xu said, he could not recognise his daughter when he went to pick her up at the Dongguan train station during her first and only visit to Guangdong.

'Until I called him father, he didn't realise it was me,' said 22-year-old Xu Xiaolan. 'We talk over the phone three times a week, but I have only seen him five times since I was born.'

Xiaolan, who finished her university studies in Chengdu earlier this year, has joined an advertising business that her brother, Xu Tao, recently opened in Luzhou. A former soldier who served in the far west province of Xinjiang, Xu Tao, who is three years older than Xiaolan, borrowed 50,000 yuan from his parents to set up the business, inspired by friends and schoolmates who became entrepreneurs.

'I want to make some money, enough to cover daily family needs and medical expenses, if any, and live happily with my parents, my wife and my daughter,' said Tao, 25. 'I don't aim to be super rich.'

'Labourers are doing the same job every day, which is dreadfully boring and harsh,' Xiaolan added. 'I will never work in a factory.'

According to a recent study by Tsinghua University and the mainland's largest online platform for blue-collar jobs,, the proportion of workers moving to regions closer to home has been rising since 2008 as the wage difference between inland provinces and Guangdong narrows.

For example, the average migrant worker's monthly wage in Hunan last year was 1,887 yuan, more than the average of 1,744 yuan they earn elsewhere.

The study also showed that the second generation of migrant workers - those born after the 1980s - preferred jobs in the service sector like advertising rather than factory work.

Both of Xu's brothers-in-law, Li Tinghui and Liu Yongji, (married to his two younger sisters) were migrant workers in Guangdong in the 1990s but found the factory floor life unbearable and returned to Luzhou. Li, 39, and his wife spent 10 years working in various factories in Dongguan. They packed up for Luzhou in 2000.

'The pay was so poor that I was paid 300 yuan a month, and my wife and I saved up only 30,000 yuan in 10 years,' Li said while having afternoon tea with Xu and Liu along the banks of the Yangtze.

Liu, 45, gave up after a tough eight months of being a migrant factory worker in Shantou , Guangdong, in 1993, producing heavy-duty machinery. After he came back to Luzhou he worked another decade to save enough money to set up Shen Bo, a lighting company that is thriving in the city's relatively buoyant property market. Gross profit margins are running as high as 50 per cent, and the company recently won a project valued at three million yuan.

'Being a blue-collar worker has no prospects. Be a boss,' said Liu, who recently spent 280,000 yuan on a car. His 90-square-metre apartment, in the city's prestigious government office area, saw its value appreciate five times in the past few years.

Li works at Shen Bo installing advertising banners and LED displays. He earns 5,000 yuan a month - twice as much as Xu's monthly salary as a security guard in Dongguan. At 60,000 yuan a year - excluding discretionary year-end bonuses - it is twice as much as Li and his wife together were able to save in an entire decade as migrant workers.

Sipping his tea as the muddy Yangtze flows gently past, Xu ponders his dilemma: throw in his lot with a family business that is reliant on a volatile local real-estate market, or stick with his long-term job in Dongguan.

'Even though my children have grown up and my financial burden is much lighter, I want to work until retirement age,' he said.

'Luzhou is my home, but I am like a tourist here.'


The estimated number of people who have migrated to the cities in recent years. About 13 million new people join the legions every year