Unemployment and xenophobia persist for migrant workers as China’s lockdown is lifted

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.

By Xinrong Ma.

Dear friends,

I hope this letter finds you all very well.

The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic first broke out in China at the end of last year, then rapidly spread around the globe. While people in many other countries are still experiencing lockdown, in China it has now been lifted. Since the middle of May travel restrictions have been eased, business and commercial activities have reopened and ordinary people have started to return to work, although the government is still emphasises the potential risks and advises people to wear face masks in public.

The pandemic has affected Chinese migrant workers in various, extremely damaging ways. Mobility has become seen as not only risky but also immoral. Workers were locked down in their hometowns from February and have been unable or unwilling to come back to the cities. By March, labour-intensive factories, such as the electronics and garment industries, were in dire need of workers to restart their production after a month’s shutdown. To recruit workers to return to factories, local governments of industrial cities began to offer higher salaries and subsidies to attract migrant workers.

An intersection of roads with no traffic. A man pushes a cart.
Empty city streets in China during lockdown, April 2020 (image: Gauthier Delecroix on flickr)

And then, unexpectedly, the supply chains were terminated in April as the pandemic spread across the globe. Many returned migrant workers were again unemployed. I have been thinking of some of the migrant workers I interviewed previously. Most of them who used to work in manufacturing can no longer find jobs and are trapped in their hometowns. They worked for years in industrial cities where small factories have now been closed. Even the largest firms, such as Foxconn, are laying off staff. Some people, including domestic workers and those in the hospitality industry, are now gradually coming back to work, but the persistence of the pandemic across the world will continue to create difficulties for migrant workers in the coming months.

The dangerous vulnerabilities of being a migrant worker in China have also affected immigrants from abroad during the current crisis. Under recent epidemic control regulations, individuals are required to provide a health code – like a digital passport – to enter their residential compound, shopping centres, transport or other public places. This digital code also enables the government to collect people’s private information, so some immigrants are unwilling to use it. Meanwhile, others find it difficult to follow the government’s pandemic control policies due to language barriers.

Guangzhou, the city where I live, became a global media hotspot in late April when the authorities required all Africans in town to test for COVID-19 and remain in quarantine, regardless of whether or not they had recently travelled. Many were evicted from their hotels or apartments and found themselves homeless. This policy, referred to briefly in the Chinese media, caused a major backlash internationally due to the clear racial discrimination behind it.

The local government’s overreaction towards Africans is associated with Beijing’s ‘Three Illegals’ of immigration (illegal entry, overstayed visas, working without a permit) – a category that many undocumented African migrants are subjected to. Social exclusion and xenophobia among Chinese citizens have been magnified during the epidemic. Under diplomatic pressure, the local government later issued an announcement that Chinese and foreigners should be treated equally, but still, the deep division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ revealed in such an event cannot be easily erased.

Although the local government was slow to act, a group of young people with backgrounds in anthropology, sociology and psychology quickly began providing food, language translation and physical support to the Africans in quarantine. Within a few days, the number of volunteers reached over 400. Being part of this volunteer group has made me feel more hopeful about the future.

My latest research concerns foreign domestic workers in China. This is an extension of my previous studies of internal ethnic Yi labour migrants. As with many African immigrants in China, southeast Asian migrant domestic workers have also been subject to the ‘Three Illegals’ category. During the pandemic, face-to-face meetings are not possible, so my plan of conducting fieldwork has been postponed. Instead, I sometimes talk with a few familiar informants via WeChat to say hello and comfort those feeling anxious.

Many of them, especially those working part time, have lost their jobs. In their neighbourhoods they are now more frequently inspected by the community guards and in public spaces more likely to be stopped by the police, though they find subtle ways to avoid them. Being unable to follow the ever-changing government information in Chinese has caused them many difficulties. If Chinese internal migrant works are only just noticed by local civil society organisations, undocumented foreign migrant workers in China are completely out of sight. So far, the Chinese government has not issued any specific policies regarding undocumented migrants, though a few local news reports state that some have been repatriated to their home countries.

Personally, a big change in my life is that I recently became a mum. My baby girl is seven months now. Her arrival cheered me up and enriched my life with love and intimacy during the lockdown period. Like many working mothers, I am facing the challenge of balancing work with caring, production and reproduction. The struggle of motherhood, precarious academic work and the embodied existence of gender inequalities, all magnified by the pandemic, are not something I read from literature, but experience in everyday life. Being a mum gives me more empathy with many working-class women I have studied and will conduct research with, especially those who have to shoulder the responsibility of family and work, and are struggling to feed their families in the pandemic. I have the privilege of working from home, but many of them cannot afford to do so. We all need to explore our agencies and form solidarity with others.

We are required to keep our physical distance during COVID-19, but many new ways are opening up for people to be socially connected. In China and many other countries, a lot of open-access webinars are now being held. The beacon of knowledge, previously bound by the wall of the university system, is leaking to wider audiences. As Bridget wrote in her earlier blog, ‘we do need to build our intellectual and affective community so we can learn from and support each other’.

The outbreak of the pandemic urges people to think beyond their familiar world, to find connections and to overcome the isolation and individualisation of our age. I am happy to share my observation of migrant workers in my country as well as my personal experience during this time with friends whom I both know or have not yet met.

Xinrong Ma has a PhD in Chinese Studies from Leiden University, The Netherlands. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Sun Yet-Sen University, Guangzhou, China. She can be contacted at maxr5@mail.sysu.edu.cn.

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