Last year eight million Filipinos and eight million Mexicans went abroad legally to work, easily eclipsing the 540,000 Chinese who went overseas and made up less than one per cent of the global migrant labour market. China wants a much bigger share of this lucrative market, which has risen from 20 million a year in the early 1980s to nearly 35 million now. Driving this goal is the unrelenting pressure of unemployment on the mainland. Each year, China needs to find 24 million new jobs for school and university graduates and the urban unemployed, not to speak of the 150 million people in rural areas who have no work. The rise in wealth of the past 20 years has brought an unprecedented outflow of Chinese around the world, with 22 million going abroad last year. The figure is a 100-fold rise over 1979, and access to foreign countries has never been easier. There is a large and growing labour market in developed countries, especially in western Europe, where population growth is stagnant or declining, the number of old people is rising and labour shortages are acute in certain sectors. But China has done a poor job of marketing its labour. Only Israel, Japan, Russia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau have opened their market to mainland labour to a limited extent, while other countries impose strict professional, financial and visa restrictions on mainland Chinese applicants. This is partly due to fears by host governments of a flood of workers who will not go home, and in part the result of an outdated system in China, a legacy of the planned economy, with too many departments involved in the approval process, too little training and an inability to react to the changing needs of the global market. But the unemployed are too poor and desperate to wait for governments. They pay thousands of dollars to snakeheads to be smuggled into western Europe, North America and Australia, via ship, train, truck or plane. Many use student or business visas and do not return when they expire. Most of the illegals come from northeast China or the southeast coastal provinces of Zhejiang and Fujian. In February this year, a court in Manchester, England, jailed a Malaysian Chinese, Martin Moo, 59, for seven years after he smuggled more than 300 mainlanders into Britain on tourist visas so they could work in fast-food restaurants. This flood of Chinese around the world and their willingness to work in any conditions, whatever the risk, has led to a consular nightmare for the government. The consular division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs last year reported about 2,000 incidents involving its citizens abroad - and these are only the cases that individuals chose to report. During the year, 38 Chinese were killed and seven injured in accidents, killings and kidnappings in Britain, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and seven Chinese miners were abducted in Iraq before being freed. In November, the ministry set up a new network involving different departments to try to improve the safety of its citizens and organisations abroad. In many cases, Chinese workers do not report the threats against them. An example is the traders of Irkutsk. From May to November last year, six of them reported kidnap incidents, with ransom demands of up to US$300,000 from both Russian and Chinese criminals. Others refused to report kidnappings, preferring to pay and remain quiet, for fear of reprisal by the criminal gangs. Many want the local authorities to ask Chinese police for help, especially in cases where Chinese criminals are involved. It is a similar story with the 3,000 Chinese traders working in Ukraine, many of them in an open-air market 7km from Odessa on the Black Sea, which attracts 100,000 visitors a day and where 70 per cent of the products come from China. Since many of the traders use visas which have expired, they stay out of the public eye and employ Ukrainians to run the stores for them. To avoid paying full import duties, many under-report the value of their products and pay bribes to police and customs officers so they will overlook this. Afghanistan is another country where the Chinese embassy is ill-equipped to help its citizens. With the overthrow of the Taleban, traders from Zhejiang moved in to take advantage of a virgin market and China exported US$300 million worth of consumer products in 2003. In April 2003, an investor named Ye Shangqiang opened the China Product Trading Centre in Kabul, with a floor area of 32 million sq ft, to sell bricks, glass and other construction material. Mr Ye employs bodyguards and rarely ventures outside Kabul. The city also boasts two Chinese hotels and eight Chinese restaurants. Exploitation is another common problem. On March 7, a Chinese worker in a textile factory in Mauritius was found dead in his dormitory, prompting a demonstration the next day by 300 of his fellow workers who demanded better working and living conditions. It appears that the man died of overwork. Mauritius has been one of the most important markets in Africa for Chinese labour, with 10,000 working in its textile industry. But, with the abolition of global quotas on January 1 this year, many plants have closed as Chinese firms can export directly and the number of workers there has fallen to 7,000, with intense competition among the remaining plants. These cases put Chinese consulates in a dilemma - especially if they involve illegals. How can they help their citizens if they are not allowed to be there? For officials of the Labour Ministry at home, the moral of these stories is that the overseas labour market is an opportunity for China, provided that it properly prepares the wealth of talent available and better sells the resource to the host governments. 'Many labour-exporting countries take this sector as a key task for the government,' said Mo Rong, deputy head of labour science research at the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare. 'But, in our embassies abroad, there is no counsellor for labour.' Li Jing, head of the ministry's foreign employment department, said China was lagging behind its competitors, with incomplete laws and regulations, inadequate information about overseas markets, poor development of available talent and a chaotic market for companies that act as middlemen. 'The export of labour is a highly organised project,' Mr Li said. 'You need to understand the detailed needs of other countries and their visa regulations. We must change the situation of depending mainly on the export of unskilled labour. We must train our people and give them the required skills, to open more channels for the legal export of labour.' When China ended its Maoist isolation in 1979, it used the export of labour as a source of foreign exchange. Between 1979 and April 2004, three million Chinese went on officially approved work contracts abroad, earning US$28 billion in countries such as Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. The business was controlled by what was then the Ministry of Foreign Trade and the Ministry of Labour. In 2002, the government liberalised the rules, allowing non-state companies - but not foreign firms or firms run by individuals - to apply for permits to send workers abroad.