BEIJING, May 27 (Reuters) – When Shanghai began its draconian COVID-19 lockdown two months ago, the French restaurant where Sun Wu waited closed tables and the 22-year-old, like countless other rural migrants, lost his job.
To make ends meet, Sun helped sort government deliveries for residents under lockdown, earning 250 yuan ($38) a day and moving from a dorm to live in the warehouse where he worked as required by COVID rules. .
Three weeks later, however, he had to leave the warehouse. His girlfriend, a migrant worker who worked at the reception of the same restaurant, needed urgent medical attention.
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With ambulance services extended, Sun paid a delivery truck driver 500 yuan to take them to the hospital on April 25, and she underwent surgery to remove a cyst from her stomach that night.
He remained by her side until she was released on May 6. He bought her flowers and took her to his dorm.
But Sun had nowhere to go.
The warehouse was unable to take him back due to strict COVID rules and his dorm lacked space to isolate him as needed. With rail services suspended, he was unable to return to Dali, his hometown 3,000 kilometers away in southwestern Yunnan province.
“I felt like I had no more cards to play,” he said.
China’s intransigent “zero COVID” policies have wreaked havoc on the world’s second-largest economy. Many of Shanghai’s 25 million residents complain of loss of income, difficulty sourcing food and mental stress. But migrant workers, unable to work from home or earn a stable salary, have far worse off.
More than 290 million people from China’s vast countryside are migrant workers, drawn to coastal megacities especially for work in factories, construction, restaurants and other low-skilled jobs. Largely paid by the hour or by the day and without a stable contract, some can earn more than 10,000 yuan in a good month but most pocket much less.
Their cheap labor helped turn cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen into bastions of Chinese prosperity.
But the shutdowns have thrust many into precarious situations, laying bare deep inequalities in Chinese society at a time when President Xi Jinping, who is set to secure an unprecedented third term this year, has made “common prosperity ” a priority.
Their plight has garnered sympathy as stories like Sun’s go viral, but with so much suffering amid the lockdown calls for action to help migrant workers in particular have been few and far between.
SLEEP ON THE STREET
As migrant workers often do, Sun had to improvise.
Grabbing his bike from a parking lot, he pedaled down deserted Shanghai roads past posh office towers to find a place to pitch a small tent he and his girlfriend had bought for travel.
“My girlfriend didn’t cry at all in the hospital,” Sun said. “That night, I left her to cry.”
That first night, he found a patch of grass near a subway station. The second night was a park; then a closed shopping center; then a covered pedestrian walkway. Security kept chasing him.
During the day, he ate food prepared by his girlfriend as they chatted through the cracks in the wall of his compound.
While biking, Sun said he spotted “hundreds” of other homeless migrants.
Even if they are not homeless, many migrant workers have been stuck in overcrowded dormitories or spent their nights sleeping in the factories or construction sites where they work. Truckers spent days on the highways, unable to cross cities without quarantine. Read more
“Once again, migrant workers are being treated as cheap and disposable,” said Diana Fu, a Chinese labor and politics scholar at the University of Toronto.
It rained heavily on the seventh night Sun spent on the streets. Not knowing what to do, he called the police for help.
An officer “told me to understand,” Sun said.
Shanghai police and the Shanghai government did not respond to Reuters requests for comment. The Shanghai government said in late April that companies would be asked to “take care of migrant workers”.
Desperate, Sun took to social media.
“I slept in parks, slept in plazas, saw Lujiazui at 3 a.m., and fed stray cats who were homeless like me,” he wrote in a May 12 post on the platform. social media Weibo, referring to Shanghai’s financial district.
“I just want to find a place where I can stay and eat.”
The message was widely shared, sparking outrage over the lack of support mechanisms for migrants – a problem that stems from China’s hukou or residence registration system devised in the 1950s.
Without hukou in the cities where they work, migrant workers are often denied access to education, health care and other services. Despite many promises of reform from policy makers, only some small towns have made it easier for migrant workers to obtain hukous.
While Sun may have garnered sympathy, policymakers are said to be more concerned about urban youth unemployment. Many migrant workers have not necessarily lost their jobs due to the lockdowns, just most or all of their earnings.
The unemployment rate for migrant workers is 6.6%, only slightly higher than the overall unemployment rate. By contrast, the rate of urban youth has climbed to 18.2%, its highest level on record, as corporate hiring wilts amid the pandemic and regulatory crackdown on private education, technology and other sectors.
“Migrants are not in the (Chinese Communist) Party’s consciousness right now,” said Valarie Tan, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, saying one-party rule requires keeping the middle class confident. in the future.
Asked about the plight of rural migrants, China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs shared a summary of measures taken to assist them amid the pandemic which said it “attaches great importance to the work of relief and assistance to people in distress due to the epidemic”.
These measures include the introduction of a hotline and a “one-off” subsidy for people in need such as migrant workers without unemployment insurance who have not worked for three consecutive months.
The day after Sun went viral on Weibo, another police officer called him. He was sent to a government quarantine center, where he shared a larger tent with another migrant worker.
Shanghai remains largely in lockdown, but some trains are running again. On Thursday, Sun and his girlfriend took one to Taizhou, 500 kilometers south, where he has family.
They will be quarantined for two weeks and then wait for Shanghai to return to normal. The city has announced its intention to reopen from June, although the extent and speed of this reopening is still unclear.
“This nightmare can end,” Sun said. “And then a new one will come.”
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Reporting by Martin Quin Pollard; Editing by Marius Zaharia and Edwina Gibbs
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