Where did all the Chinese workers go?

Employers complain about a labor shortage in southern China. It's good news

Published February 25, 2010 11:44PM (EST)

Chinese exporters can't find workers, according to the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times. Or, to be more precise, they can't find the kind of workers who used to be willing to plunk themselves down in front of mind-numbing assembly lines for wages of around $250 a month. The millions of migrant workers from the inland who once poured  into China's coastal regions willing do any kind of work at all appear to be getting more choosy, even when offered a dazzling array of perks.

From the FT:

"We haven't found anyone today," Ms Liu admitted, clutching flyers that smacked of desperation. They boasted of complimentary food for the first month of employment, cooling herbal teas on hot days, free dorm rooms with en suite washrooms and hot water, and computer, library and leisure facilities.

From the WSJ:

Various domestic media reports put the labor supply gap at around a million people in Guangzhou and neighboring cities such as Dongguan, legendary centers of China's export boom in the past three decades. Numerous assembly lines and construction sites are sitting idle while anxious employers have raised salaries by more than 30 percent but still can't attract enough applicants.

The Journal's Shen Hong speculates that government efforts to spur development in China's inland regions have ameliorated the economic pressure that previously motivated workers to head East. The FT backs up that theory by noting what a difference it makes to upgrade transportation links connecting previously remote cities to wealthier markets.

In December, China unveiled the world's fastest passenger train service between Guangzhou and the central city of Wuhan, covering 1,100km in just three hours. The Harmony Express line has reduced travel time between Guangzhou and Shaoguan, an industrial backwater in Guangdong's remote mountain region, to just 40 minutes, anchoring local workers closer to home.

The noteworthy aspect to all of this is how fast it appears to be happening. The huge income disparities between coastal and inland China have long been regarded as potentially destabilizing. But the extent to which China is remaking itself, in real time, makes yesterday's assumptions obsolete at a speed almost as fast as the rate at which China's trains now fly down the tracks.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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