Far From Home: Meet the Migrants Returning to Shanghai

Far From Home: Meet the Migrants Returning to Shanghai


Weeks after the pandemic’s peak, most migrant workers are anxious about what lies ahead in 2023. But despite the uncertainties, working in big cities is still their best bet.

SHANGHAI — One worker in his late 50s is eagerly seeking a job — he does not want to rely on his son for support. Another hopes to give up migrant work and become a farmer. And a third is searching for a former employer who owes him thousands of yuan in back wages and says he just wants his money back. 

Every year, millions of migrant workers and students return to major economic hubs at the end of the Lantern Festival — this time, on Feb. 5. But this year was different. 

Following three years of economic disruption amid the pandemic, and just weeks after infections peaked in China after the “zero-COVID” policy was abruptly dismantled last December, migrant workers returning to Shanghai find a city changed. They say there are fewer jobs, the pay is lower, and there’s little job security. 

After exiting Shanghai Railway Station, a migrant worker head two floors down to a temporary shelter, a 10-minute walk away, set up in an underground parking lot, Feb. 13, 2022. Zhou Pinglang for Sixth Tone.

At the shelter, workers first pick up one of the several dozen red plastic stools made available to them. Then they find a spot to wait out the night. Zhou Pinglang for Sixth Tone

A stall nearby offers instant noodles, milk tea, marinated eggs, and sausages, which are priced at six yuan, five yuan, three yuan, and three yuan, respectively. Hot water is available for free a short walk away. Zhou Pinglang for Sixth Tone

At 3 a.m. on Sunday, around 20 migrant workers were at the shelter, which can accommodate hundreds of people. Some chatted with each other, some were glued to their phones, and others just fell asleep on their stools. Zhou Pinglang for Sixth Tone

On Sunday, Sixth Tone visited an underground parking lot at the Shanghai Railway Station, where a temporary shelter has been set up for returning workers. Since public transportation closes at midnight, many migrant workers find it too expensive to stay at hotels or book taxis. Instead, they stay overnight to catch the earliest metro to their next job.

At the shelter, which closed Wednesday after operating since Spring Festival, many said they were anxious about what 2023 would hold, considering businesses and factories had also been affected since the pandemic began in 2020. They also underscored that, despite the uncertainties ahead, working away from their hometown is still their best bet. 

Liu, 56, from Sichuan province

Sixth Tone: When did you arrive in Shanghai?

Liu: I came alone on Feb. 12. But soon, I’ll move to Yiwu in the eastern Zhejiang province. I’m here to take the metro to another railway station in Shanghai first.

Sixth Tone: Are you looking for work, or do you have a job already?

Liu: I worked in Yiwu as a housekeeper for eight years and now the same employer has invited me to work there again. I left Yiwu and returned to my village in 2012 to keep an eye on the construction of my house and be with my grandson. I want to earn some money now since I’m getting old, and that just isn’t possible in my hometown. I know I’ll miss my family, but I have no choice.

Sixth Tone: What is the job market like this year?

Liu: It’s always more difficult for older migrant workers to find a job since we can’t take on physically demanding work and are less efficient compared with youngsters. If I hadn’t secured a job beforehand, I might not even have had the courage to leave my hometown. I’ve also considered going to Beijing for higher wages. But I never feel safe living there. It’s too unfamiliar.

Zhong Mingyuan, 57, from Sichuan province

Sixth Tone: When did you arrive in Shanghai?

Zhong: I was actually supposed to go to Jiashan County in Zhejiang province but it looks like I’ve bought the wrong ticket. I arrived here tonight (Feb. 12) and need to go to another railway station.

Sixth Tone: Are you looking for work, or do you have a job already?

Zhong: For 28 years, I’ve been supporting my family who are in Sichuan. I unload and transport cargo from containers in Jiashan. Now, at my age, I want to earn some money so I don’t need to rely on my son later in life. With this job, I can still save 6,000 yuan per month. However, in our village, the pension given to seniors is several hundred yuan per month. The government has been working on revitalizing villages but what can be done without retaining the young?

But I am planning to quit migrant work this year. I want to start farming at home and become a local truck driver. The pressure of living and working in the city is too high.

Sixth Tone: What is the job market like this year?

Zhong: It’s not as good as many might expect and there aren’t as many job openings this year. Amid the industrial transformation in recent years, many factories have also relocated to other provinces and southeastern countries. Moreover, many industries and enterprises haven’t recovered from last year’s lockdown in Shanghai. We weren’t really affected by the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, but last year the impact eclipsed everything.

Wu Hongbing, 34, from Shanxi province

Sixth Tone: When did you arrive in Shanghai?

Wu: I’m from a small town in Shanxi and I got off the train on Sunday. I traveled for more than 24 hours to get here. 

Sixth Tone: Are you looking for work, or do you have a job already?

Wu: For people like us without higher education or skills, there aren’t a lot of opportunities in our hometowns and you can earn much more working elsewhere, though it’s always laborious and there’s not much freedom. I’ve worked on construction sites in a lot of cities, but I want to work in a different sector in Shanghai this time, since I don’t want to feel so detached from society.

A friend recommended Shanghai to me though he hasn’t guaranteed me any jobs. I plan to meet him first. Other than the location he has sent me on the phone, I don’t know anything about where I’m heading.

Sixth Tone: What is the job market like this year?

Wu: I guess it’ll be easier for me since I can rely on my friends for more opportunities. I’m not worried about becoming jobless, because I know that eventually, I’ll do anything I can to earn, whether it means working in a factory or just as a security guard. I believe that as an adult, it would be shameful to depend on parents for support. Life is always hard, and you have to work with your own hands.

Liu Sr., 45, and Liu Jr., 24, from Xianyang, Shaanxi province

Sixth Tone: When did you arrive in Shanghai?

Liu Jr.: We just got here from a village in Xianyang. 

Sixth Tone: Are you looking for work, or do you have a job already?

Liu Jr.: For the past few years, I’ve been working at an assembly plant in Shanghai. I returned home several months ago to take my driver’s license test and now I need to find a job again.

We plan to visit the factory and see if they’re still hiring. My mother is older now. If she can’t find one at the factory, she can still work in a restaurant, or do any work she can, really. We’re only here to earn more money. Here, I can save more than 50,000 yuan a year if I don’t squander all my salary. I can’t save the same amount in Shaanxi, but in Shanghai, it means more than 12 hours of work a day to get 8,000 yuan every month. We’re at the bottom of society and work means losing ten years of our lives for money.

Sixth Tone: What is the job market like this year?

Liu Jr.: The situation is worse than the past few years. Many big factories, especially those assembling products for Apple, have cut back and even stopped hiring this season due to a decline in orders. In general, wages are also lower.

Wu Shiyou, 57, & his wife, Liu Daiqiao, 50, from Shaanxi province

Sixth Tone: When did you arrive in Shanghai?

Wu: We are just transiting through Shanghai. We’re going back to the city of Nantong in Jiangsu after spending Spring Festival at my wife’s hometown in Guizhou.

Sixth Tone: Are you looking for work, or do you have a job already?

Wu: We both work as steel workers at a construction site, earning around 140,000 yuan annually over the past two years. While we spent nearly 500,000 yuan constructing our own house, recently the government informed us that the land will be used to build temporary apartments for factory workers. They said our house was built illegally and would be demolished soon. I still have no idea about the compensation plan and I’m really upset by the decision.

Sixth Tone: What is the job market like this year?

Wu: I guess I will just work when I’m able to and rest when I’m not. I don’t have any goals and plans for 2023. Learning to reconcile with our circumstances is more important than struggling to change it.

Lü Xiaoqing, 56, from a county in Hanzhong, Shaanxi province

Sixth Tone: When did you arrive in Shanghai?

Lü: I just arrived here on Sunday after a 30-hour train journey.

Sixth Tone: Are you looking for work, or do you have a job already?

Lü: I’ve reached out to my previous employer and will continue to work repairing roads this year. For the past two years, I’ve mostly stayed in my hometown taking care of myself due to hyperosteogeny (a bone condition) in my leg. Also, my mother died in November from chronic diseases. 

During the pandemic, I couldn’t find any decent jobs. I tried last year in Beijing, and ended up being a security guard with a monthly pay of 3,500 yuan per month. I quit after three months after suffering a cerebral infarction.

Sixth Tone: What is the job market like this year?

Lü: I will just follow my current employer until the moment he stops being credible. He guaranteed that I would save at least 60,000 yuan by the end of this year. All I hope is that he pays my basic salary without deductions. Working on the roads is arduous. To complete projects in time, we usually work overtime but receive no extra pay, and sometimes have to work in bad weather too. If it doesn’t work out well, I’ll start looking for other jobs. 

Xiao Haijun, 40, from Shandong province

Sixth Tone: When did you arrive in Shanghai?

Xiao: My hometown is Heze and I arrived in Shanghai on Feb. 4. For the past week or so, I’ve been sleeping in the park and here (at Shanghai Railway Station). Hotels are just too expensive.

Sixth Tone: Are you looking for work, or do you have a job already?

Xiao: I used to work in Shanghai as a construction worker between 2019 and 2021. But this time, I’ve returned to find my previous employer, who still owes me at least 50,000 yuan ($7,300). He had promised more money for helping him find other workers, but now he’s gone missing and is refusing to answer my phone calls.

Sixth Tone: What is the job market like this year?

Xiao: I just want my money back. I’ll find work eventually but I’m not planning to stay in Shanghai anymore. Since arriving, I’ve appealed to the arbitration committee and the courts. I’ve called the police and the city service hotline to seek help, but it’s been to no avail since I can’t contact my boss and I don’t have any evidence either. Labor companies aren’t very willing to sign working contracts with us. If I had a contract, I guess I wouldn’t be sleeping here now.

He Xuelian, 21, from Nanchong, Sichuan province

Sixth Tone: When did you arrive in Shanghai?

He: I’m a third-year college student from Nanchong. I planned to take the night bus back to my college, the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, tonight (Feb. 12) but was told that it’s shut. I’ll wait at the railway station until the morning before returning to my university. 

Sixth Tone: What is your plan this year?

He: I plan to do a postgraduate degree in the future and also go out and travel more since the pandemic is now over. I haven’t experienced what college life is like without any restrictions. I feel fine overall about the containment measures but my last three years at university felt like being back in high school.

Editor: Apurva
(Header image: The shelter at 3 a.m., Feb. 13, 2023. Zhou Pinglang for Sixth Tone)


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