In the Pearl River Delta, China’s export manufacturing heartland, migrant workers are watching their incomes plummet and jobs disappear overnight, as local businesses grapple with challenges ranging from coronavirus outbreaks to tumbling international orders. Two years ago, tens of thousands of migrant workers were cast out of work as employers scaled back production due to the US-China trade war and the initial coronavirus outbreak, which started in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. Few people then would have anticipated the pace of China’s recovery, with exports hitting new highs in the past year and even migrant workers older than 50 in demand in the region’s factories. Now, the story is being rewritten again, with factories laying off workers and young people unable to find casual jobs. Why is China’s inflation rate low compared to the US, Europe and Britain? From the footwear industry to electronics to garments, insiders say they are facing a rare combination of pressures: supply chain disruptions caused by coronavirus controls; declining demand in the domestic, European and US markets; and a massive shift in overseas orders to Southeast Asia. China’s export growth rebounded in May from a slump in April, as manufacturing activity in Shanghai gradually returned to normal after a two-month lockdown was lifted. But analysts have called it a “temporary blip”, with most predicting momentum to fade as headwinds grow. On May 31, in Qingxi township in the manufacturing hub of Dongguan, workers at Tecqum Electronic Technology were informed they would have to take five months’ holiday without pay until October. Management said domestic and international orders had fallen off a cliff, inventory costs were surging because finished goods could not be shipped abroad, and there was a shortage in raw materials. A senior executive surnamed Hu said this week the company was rethinking the unpaid leave plan, but acknowledged the production problems listed in the notice. Another electronic precision company in the area is also planning to downsize its workforce from 6,000 employees to 4,000, according to a source close to management, who did not want to identify the company or themselves. “When the pandemic first started, the US government was providing money to ordinary Americans, so our orders were gorgeous,” said W.Y. Wang, who runs an export-oriented pet product factory that employs a few thousand workers in Guangdong province. “But orders in the second quarter of this year fell 60 per cent compared to last year. We have had no overtime or weekend shifts for weeks, which means that workers can only take home the minimum wage set by the local city – about 2,000 or 3,000 yuan [US$300 or US$450].” Still, most workers have no intention of leaving because they understand how difficult the job market is across the country right now, Wang said. Xie Yifei, a Shenzhen-based migrant worker, said his workplace is letting staff off at weekends this month and will not hire production-line workers under 35 years old. “If you drive to the industrial area on the border of Dongguan and Shenzhen now, you will see a lot of vacancies and rentals again,” he said. Trouble in China’s manufacturing heartland has the potential to ripple through the wider economy. The export sector provides jobs for 180 million people, or more than a third of the country’s 530 million non-farming jobs, according to the commerce ministry. Slowing export momentum will add to job pressure caused by rigid lockdowns. China’s youth league vows to ‘ease job pressure’ for the class of 2022 China’s surveyed urban unemployment rate – which does not count the country’s 290 million migrant workers – was 5.9 per cent in May , compared with 6.1 per cent in April, which was the highest level since March 2020, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. In the 16-24 age group, the jobless rate continued to climb to a record 18.4 per cent last month. Sentiment among manufacturers improved in May, with the official manufacturing purchasing managers’ index (PMI) rising to 49.6 , from 47.4 in April. But the reading was still below the 50 mark that separates expansion from contraction. Overall, the outlook remains gloomy. Academics at Peking University warned last week that, under current zero-Covid controls, the country could see unemployment reach levels similar to 2020 , when up to 12 per cent of the working population was out of a job. Factory closures usually mean “a whole community will be idle”, said Liang Lu, who runs a consultancy in Dongguan helping local manufacturers promote their business. “In Shijie township, on a road well-known for producing speakers, most of the factories, stores and restaurants are half shut down,” said Liang. In Shenzhen and Dongguan, growing signs of unemployment among youth are concerning, said Liu Kaiming, head of the Institute of Contemporary Observation, which has partnered with global brands and organisations to supervise supply chains and working conditions in hundreds of factories across the mainland. “In Shenzhen, those young men have grown tired of working long hours in factories for little pay, instead they take occasional one-off jobs as labourers and receive cash for a day’s work,” he said. For those who have children, parents and mortgages, it’s hard to get by Xie Yifei “But they are struggling to pay for nearby cheap inns, as one-off jobs disappear and their pay is cut.” Xie, the migrant worker, said workers on Shenzhen production lines have seen their incomes drop by at least 1,000 yuan a month from last year, with many earning about 4,000 yuan a month. “But we do not dare move from city to city because of the high risk of Covid travel rules and the situation is similar at factories in other places,” he said. In Xie’s hometown of Baise, Guangxi province, monthly salaries for factory workers can be as low as 2,000 yuan, while jobs in the countryside can earn even less. “For those who have children, parents and mortgages, it’s hard to get by,” he said.