Migration a thing of the past for families living where jobs now grow

After 20 years in Guangdong, a migrant worker decides it's time to reconnect with his family back home - one of millions to make that choice

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 December, 2012, 5:15am

Xu Guanghui is determined to prove that you can go home again.

In May, the 49-year-old migrant worker quit his job in southern China and went "home" to Luzhou in Sichuan province. The move ended a 20-year stint in Guangdong province, the past 15 as a security guard at a curtain-wall manufacturer in Dongguan , a factory town.

Xu returned to a family he had seldom seen and to children and a grandchild he hardly knew. Having left behind a secure job and a steady income, he's embarked on a new life in a precarious family start-up company.

"Life back home is harsher. I work from 9 am until the work is finished, Monday to Sundays," Xu said with a big sigh. "But I work with my kids every day and can come home to have dinner with my mother and my folks."

Xu was part of the first wave of mainland workers to become migrant labourers as China opened up three decades ago. The South China Morning Post chronicled Xu's situation in an article earlier this year as he wrestled with whether to continue the lonely life of a migrant for a few more years, or try to re-enter his family circle in the town where he grew up. When we interviewed Xu in March, he was resisting entreaties by family members, themselves former migrant workers, to return to Luzhou, an ancient city on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. "Luzhou is my home but I am like a tourist here," he told us then, during a rare visit to his hometown.

Millions of migrant workers like Xu are expected to crowd into cities as Beijing fast-tracks its urbanisation agenda. Part of the aim is to lift incomes and redress disparities in wealth distribution between rural and urban areas. The government hopes this will help boost domestic consumption, reducing the economy's reliance on exports.

Today, about half the country's population are urban dwellers, up from 18 per cent in 1978, when the nation started to open its economy, said Peng Wensheng, chief economist of investment bank China International Capital Corp. By 2030, according to the World Bank's projections, nearly two-thirds of the nation's 1.3 billion people are expected to be living in urban areas.

Meanwhile, fewer people are migrating to the Pearl River Delta region for work, dramatically altering the country's labour force and its industry. Stanley Lau Chin-ho, deputy chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Industries, said fewer workers were coming from places that previously were big providers of labour, such as Hunan , Guangxi and Xu's home province of Sichuan. Many factory owners in coastal and southern regions have chosen to relocate production to inland regions such as the west, where wages are relatively low and workers more plentiful, he says.

Workers "have no need to travel day and night to the south for jobs and what they can earn in their hometowns may be similar to the wages in Guangdong," Lau said. Moreover, he said, "job security is getting worse in Guangdong, where factories are locked in a fight for survival of the fittest and are troubled by labour disputes over welfare and demands for democracy in management".

Lau forecast that by 2015, the number of Hong Kong-owned factories in the Pearl River Delta would shrink to about 35,000, or 30 per cent below the 50,000 operating at the end of last year. In 2007, there were about 60,000.

Soaring wages are mostly to blame, a consequence of Beijing's grand plan to lift incomes and spending power to transform the national economy.

While Xu's long-time job at the Dongguan curtain-wall factory looked secure, his personal tipping point came after the March visit to Luzhou. That trip was only his fifth in all those years. His hometown had morphed into a city of skyscrapers and construction cranes, and the local authority was thriving.

Xu's wife, who was also a migrant worker in Dongguan, had already moved back to Luzhou. Many of his friends and relatives, including two brothers-in-law, had also returned, and appeared to be prospering. After returning to Dongguan, a bone-jarring, 34-hour bus ride away, Xu thought hard about his future.

Two decades as a migrant worker had enabled him to feed his family, send his daughter to university and help fund the purchase of a relatively spacious apartment in Luzhou. He was feeling financially secure.

His son, Tao, and his daughter, Xiaolan, both in their twenties, had started a company in Luzhou in February to make advertising signboards and were expanding into commercial LED [light-emitting diode] light boxes used in outdoor advertising. By May, his mind was made up.

"I had just paid off my debts from buying the apartment and my kids' business was growing fast even though it was still in its infancy," Xu said of his decision to return to Luzhou. "The business has grown even faster after I came home. We want to buy a car next year."

In fact, business has been so brisk that the family has had to work seven days a week, and been forced to hire several workers to handle projects.

Xu sees more business opportunities arising from rapid urbanisation in Luzhou, a second-tier city of about five million people that is seeking to turn itself from a winery capital into a modern, industrialised metropolis.

Seven months after his return, Xu is still settling in.

"Working hours are longer here and the salaries vary according to the business situation," he said. "It's so different from Dongguan, where I got regular work hours and pay."

He now earns about 4,000 yuan (HK$5,000) to 5,000 yuan a month, which is far higher than the monthly salary of 2,500 yuan he made in Dongguan.

And he has gained something far more valuable - a chance to rebuild ties with his children, and connect with his young granddaughter, Ruiqi.

Xu boasts he has become "a good friend" of the two-year-old toddler, who treated him as a stranger on his March visit, fleeing whenever he wanted to hug her.

"She now even calls me yeye [grandpa]," Xu said gleefully.

Just this month, he was able to join with four generations of his family, including his elderly mother, to celebrate his brother's 50th birthday. It was the kind of special occasion he has missed over the past two decades.

From time to time, Xu thinks of the fellow migrant workers with whom he used to toil in Guangdong and the factory he patrolled for so many years, and admitted that he sometimes felt "homesick", like the way he used to feel about Luzhou.

"After all, I spent almost 20 years there," he said of Guangdong. "I miss it."



1963 Xu Guanghui born

1987 Xu's son, Tao, born

1990 Xu's daughter, Xiaolan, born

1992 Xu leaves Luzhou to work in Dongguan

1996 Xu makes his first visit home, for Lunar New Year

2000 Xu returns home, again for Lunar New Year

2001 Xu's wife, Huang Xianjun, leaves Luzhou and joins Xu to work in Dongguan

2004 Xu and his wife return home for Lunar New Year

2008 Xu and his wife again visit home for Lunar New Year

2010 Xu and his wife go home to see newborn granddaughter, Ruiqi, their son Tao's daughter. Later, Xiaolan visits Xu in Dongguan

2011 Huang decides to leave Dongguan for good and goes home to take care of granddaughter Ruiqi

March 7 - March 21, 2012 Xu makes his first visit home in two years

May 22, 2012 Xu packs up and bids farewell to Dongguan, perhaps for the last time, returning to Luzhou for good