Managing Employment and Migrant Labour in a COVID19 World: Lessons from China

Picture Source: Time.com

Learning from others has acquired a new meaning altogether in the COVID19 world order, wherein countries across the globe are trying to deal with an unprecedented situation. Wuhan, where the virus first emerged is now slowly limping back to normalcy as factories have started production again and people are slowly getting back to their jobs and some semblance of normalcy. One of the biggest fallouts of the COVID19 has been that of migrant labourers getting trapped in their places of work as governments announce lockdowns in the hopes of restricting movement and social contact- the biggest way in which the coronavirus spreads. However, this has meant that labourers get stuck in places of their work without work as factories shut down, and without proper access to food as everything goes in a lockdown mode.

The question that emerges in this context is how China has dealt with these questions of employment and migration. China’s economic rise has been built on the availability of cheap labour from migrants in particular. According to the China Labour Bulletin of Hong Kong, there were an estimated 288 million rural migrant workers in China in 2018, making up more than one-third of the entire working population. While migrant workers have been the engine of China’s spectacular economic growth over the last three decades but they face several structural and societal constraints like other parts of the developing world.

On January 23, 2020, China’s central government imposed a lockdown in Wuhan- the epicentre of the coronavirus at 10:00 local time (02:00 GMT), leaving normally busy train stations and airports empty. A city of 11 million people immediately saw the cancellation of all trains and planes in and out. Residents, most of whom were preparing for the Lunar New year were warned not to travel in or out. The only advantage some of the migrant labourers had in this context was that they had left for their respective hometowns for the Lunar Year celebrations. According to an article by RuiZhong and James Palmer for Foreign Policy, migrant workers often begin their travels for the Lunar New Year much before than white-collar labourers for the simple reasons that faster means of transport like flights and bullet trains are simply out of the reach of these workers and therefore they start their long arduous journeys back home using slower methods of transport- which entails them to leave earlier than their white-collar counterparts. This time around this proved advantageous to some, as they were outside of Wuhan which went into lockdown mode from January 23 onwards.

According to Professor Xiang Biao, the immediate aftermath of the SARS outbreak in 2002 was much worse as millions of migrant labourers faced risks of the virus spread. In a journal article for Asia and Pacific Migration journal in 2003, Prof. Xiang wrote, “The government and the public considered rural-urban migrant workers as the most problematic group during the SARS outbreak in China in early 2003. They feared that migrant workers who were susceptible to the disease tended to flee major cities where the early outbreaks occurred, and then spread the virus to the countryside where containing the disease would be difficult”. This was the case in 2003, but how well did China fare this time? In any case, the fact remains that the experience with SARS led China to be better prepared for a similar outbreak.

In India, the stories of migrant labourers trapped in their places of work have been heartrending  and multiple. While the government desperately tries to seek ways to address the situation, taking a leaf out of some of China’s experiences concerning food supplies, online deliveries, managing migrant crises and employment might be beneficial.

Prof. Xiang, speaking at a Zoom conference, mentioned a few steps that the Chinese government is undertaking to mitigate the crisis as well as to create alternative forms of employment, which deserve a closer look by governments across the globe.As Wuhan struggles out of the lockdown, to bring about a “securitisation of labour”, the Chinese government in tandem with the local governments is trying to bring back migrant labourers from the countryside back to the cities, because they are rendered jobless in their hometowns, far away from a Wuhan under lockdown and hypersensitivity to possible COVID19 patients.  For this, the local government did not just release labourers in the cities of work, but organised collective transport for them, from their villages to the specified factories. This curtailed the free movement of labourand reduced possibilities of the virus spread. The entire process was called “point to point transport”. A labour dispatching company or entity was created (which also led to an alternative form of employment), which collated the number of labourers in say village X who had to be transported to factory Y. The entity collated the data of the number of labourers required in factories of a particular city/province.

 When labourers are gathered and have to board the transport from village X, full monitoring of health conditions of labourers is done by local government authorities of village X. Similarly while deboarding at factory Y, the local government monitors the health of each labourer. The entire point to point transport is done through a closed designated route and is monitored so that people randomly cannot board the transport and increase possibilities of the virus spread. The Guangdong Province, for example, has promised USD 25 per labourer to the intermediary company, along with a month of social security. The cost of transportation is paid by the Guangdong government.

Another scheme that is intended for labour security entails the creation of another form of intermediary company, which again increases scopes for alternative employment creation. In this process if for example labourer A is employed in a restaurant and has been temporarily laid off because restaurants cannot function under quarantine, then she/he can be employed temporarily by a delivery company, till such time as the situation does not go back to normal. The intermediary company collates the data of such labourers who have been temporarily laid off and who need to be readjusted. Similarly, this intermediary company also finds out the number of delivery services needed city wise. All of this is done with permissions from the State government.

As far as meeting people’s food, medical and clothing needs are concerned, e-commerce has played a big role in both India and China. However, this has been impacted by the lockdowns. In order to assuage the situation, in China as per government orders, the delivery personnel’s body temperature shows up on the receiving customer’s phone screen, who can deny receiving the package if the delivery personnel is suffering from a high temperature. As per interviews conducted with foreign employees in China, in tier A cities like Beijing, people are slowly being allowed to go back to work- but only for two days in a week for starters, with full temperature and medical checks at entry gates of workplaces.

India already has set up AarogyaSetu, and once e-commerce relaxation takes place, temperature checks can be introduced in delivery service apps using some of the technology that has already gone into the making of the AarogyaSetu app. In terms of essential food deliveries, government cadres undertook end to end distribution all across Wuhan during the lockdown. In this, government employees picked up essential commodities after calculating food needs in particular localities and delivered it themselves. In India, this has been done in a few places, but it could probably be expanded. As per interviews conducted with foreign employees in China, in tier A cities like Beijing, people have been allowed to go back to work since February- but only for two days in a week, with full temperature and medical checks at entry gates of workplaces.

While the world continues to grapple with the myriad challenges thrown up by the COVID19, learning from successful cases elsewhere may go a long way in addressing crises. Some of the employment and management policies of China deserve a closer look in this context.

The author is an Assistant Professor and Assistant Academic Dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University.

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