Covid blockades in China leave millions of people unemployed

After more than a month of lockdown, Zeng Jialin could finally return to the Shanghai auto parts factory where he had worked. He was about to be released from a quarantine facility, having recovered from Covid, and desperately wanted to make up for the many days of wages he had lost.

But on Tuesday, the day he was due to be released, someone in the crowded isolation facility tested positive again. Mr. Zeng, 48, was ordered to wait another 14 days.

“I have three kids, in college, middle school and elementary school. The pressure is enormous, “he said in a telephone interview from the facility. Much of his $ 30 daily salary had supported them.” I also owe money to the bank, so I’m very anxious. “

As China battles its worst coronavirus outbreaks, its uncompromising determination to eliminate infections has left millions unable to work. The severe blockades, which hit city after city, have forced factories and businesses to close, sometimes for weeks, even in some of the most important economic centers in the country.

Two groups were particularly affected: migrant workers – the roughly 280 million workers who travel from rural areas to cities to work in sectors such as manufacturing and construction – and recent college graduates. Nearly 11 million college students, a record, are expected to graduate this year.

China’s campaign against the virus has spread economically around the world, Growling global supply chains Other dampening imports. But employment problems may particularly concern Chinese leaders, who have long derived much of their political authority from their promise of economic prosperity. As the lockdowns have hindered people’s ability to pay rent and buy food, many have become increasingly frustrated with the authorities’ zero-Covid policies. At times, dissatisfaction has resulted in rare public protests.

The N. 2nd officer, Li Keqiang, announced recently that the government would take the unusual step of distributing subsistence benefits to unemployed migrant workers and subsidiary companies hiring young people.

“The new round of Covid flare-ups has hit the occupation quite hard,” Li said said on April 27. “We must do everything possible to increase job creation, especially for key groups such as university graduates.”

It is difficult to judge the true extent of the problem. Officially, urban unemployment, the government’s main indicator, grew by only 0.3 percent between February and March, even as the lockdowns paralyzed the economic engines of the Shenzhen and Shanghai.

But the official unemployment figures are widely considered an underestimate. They don’t catch many migrant workers and even count unemployed people only if they are able to start working within two weeks. This would exclude people subject to prolonged lockdowns or the growing number of young people postponing job searches.

The government’s new support measures suggest the problem is more serious than officials have hinted at, he said Stefano Rocco, the former president of Morgan Stanley Asia, now a researcher at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. The government had also raised unemployment benefits for migrant workers before the global financial crisis in 2008.

“The announcement itself is a hint that something much bigger is potentially happening in this contingent chunk of the job market,” Roach said. “This could be the biggest challenge facing China since 2008-2009.”

Chinese migrant workers, although they form the backbone of the country’s economy, have always been precarious means of subsistence. They earn meager wages and have almost no coveralls or benefits at work, circumstances exacerbated by the pandemic.

Workers often live in corporate dormitories or low-cost temporary housing, but when factories close, many can no longer afford rent or become trapped in their workplaces, according to the Chinese. news and social media posts. Some slept under bridges or in telephone boxes.

Yang Jiwei, a 21-year-old from Anhui Province, was working as a waiter in Shanghai when the lockdown began. His residence, shared with four other people, had no kitchen supplies, so they couldn’t cook the few packages of vegetables and meat provided by local officials. He was eating a dwindling supply of instant noodles.

“I get up, eat, and then go back to bed,” said Mr. Yang. “Other than food, I can’t think of anything else.”

Delivery workers, some of the only workers allowed to continue working, had to choose between forgoing income or risking being locked out of their homes. Others have accepted high-risk jobs construction or personnel of quarantine facilitiesjust to get infected.

Officials in Shanghai have recognized that the number of homeless people increased during the lockdown. Local and central authorities have pledged to support, but many questions remain.

When Mr. Li, the premier, announced the expansion of unemployment benefits, he did not specify how much money would be provided. (Xinhua, the state news agency, She said that the government has allocated about $ 9.3 billion in unemployment benefits this year.) Nor is it clear how workers will receive the money. Although China has unemployment insurance, many migrant workers are ineligible or you don’t know how to claim it.

Mr. Zeng, an auto parts factory worker, said he was unaware of Mr. Li’s remarks and never heard of unemployment insurance. He hoped to be hired after being released from quarantine, but he knew he would have to go home to Guizhou province instead.

“I’ll have to see if the factory reopens. If so, I’ll go, “she said.” If not, there’s nothing I can do. “

However, any political risk to Beijing is likely to remain small, said Aidan Chau, a researcher with the China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based advocacy group. The pain of migrant workers, while acute, is likely to lessen as individual blockages loosen. The government has also promised to invest in infrastructure projects to provide more construction jobs. And migrant workers in general have little political power and can be silenced by local officials if they complain.

The most intractable problem may be white-collar work. Resistance in Shanghai to the lockdown it was fueled in part by its large population of well-educated residents, who are more used to talking even in the highly controlled environment of the country. In late March, residents of a middle-class community gathered outside and sang“We want to eat, we want to work!”

Of particular concern is the country’s growing ranks of college graduates. Political decision makers they have been worried for years on how to guarantee them an adequate job offer. But the shortage has become particularly severe this year.

At the same time as the blocks battered small and medium-sized enterprisesthe government has also initiated a a large regulatory crackdown on the inclusion of technology, real estate and education sectors, once highly desirable industries for young people. Mass layoffs ensued.

There were only 0.71 jobs available for each freshly graduated job applicant in the first quarter of this year, the lowest figure since the data became available in 2019. according to a report from Renmin University in Beijing and Zhaopin, a job website.

“For a country that is always fixated on social stability, having your young people fight for jobs when they drop out of college isn’t quite what such a system would want,” Roach told Yale.

Mr. Li’s promises to help graduates last month included plans to help them start their own businesses and to subsidize companies that offered internships.

Internships are also hard to find. To increase his chances of getting one this semester, Xu Yixing, a professional college student in Shanghai, was offered to work unpaid but was still turned down by better choices than him. A pharmaceutical company eventually hired him but let him go when Shanghai was blocked.

Mr. Xu, who studies computer applications and advertising, said he is not overly anxious about the competition. It was the pandemic that worried him.

“With the epidemic, it just depends on fate,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how hard you work.”

Joy Dong contributed reportage.

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