A land of immigrants

China faces immigration issue

A land of immigrants

En route to China

As Western policymakers keep a wary eye on unemployment rates into 2011, unskilled factory workers in China’s industrial heartland are being offered returning bonuses to make sure they come back after next year’s Lunar New Year Holiday.

Factories in the export hub of the Pearl River Delta have had to turn down orders because of a lack of trained labour, says the China Daily. Many are worried that the situation is going to worsen after the Lunar New Year. Every year millions of migrant workers make their way back to their hometowns for the holiday. Some of the holidaymakers choose not to return to their jobs.

The dearth of returning migrants has set off a scramble to recruit workers. But instead of looking to China’s hinterlands, some are counting on illegal immigrants from Vietnam and other South Asian countries instead.

The Yangtze Evening Post reported in November that some 28 illegal workers from Vietnam had been employed as cheap labour at a Zhuji City-based textile factory in Zhejiang – and worked there for almost a year before they were discovered and repatriated. The factory manager told the newspaper that they hired the illegal migrants due to labour shortages.

“It never occurred to me that I was working with a group of foreigners,” says a factory worker. “It’s the first time I have heard of foreigners coming to China to work as cheap labour.”

It’s not going to be the last. Vietnam is now China’s biggest supplier of illegal labour. Many of the Vietnamese cross the country’s southern border, and are paid heavily discounted wage over short-term contracts. They have a reputation for hard work too: “They normally would work eight hours a day for an entire month without a day off,” one boss told the Global Times admiringly.

No one seems to know exactly how many illegal immigrants are in China, but the estimates are getting higher. In Guanxi’s Chongzhou alone, for example, there are over 10,000 illegal workers active in the city, says the People’s Daily.

This is rather ironic: over the past decade China was often the source of many of the illegal immigrants arriving in the US and Europe, but in a role reversal China is beginning to attract grey market labour in its own right.

Is China ready to become a nation of immigrants, asks Xinmin Weekly? The fact is, the government seems ill-equipped to deal with the influx of outsiders and is only now in the process of drafting its first immigration laws.

Unlike Western countries, where legislation to regulate the flow of transnational migrants can date back as much as a century, China currently has no similar provisions to deal with illegal immigrants, reckons Professor Liu Guofu, an immigration expert. Even for foreigners that have obtained permanent residence – commonly known as the “Chinese green card” – there are no detailed provisions on social security, healthcare or education.

The new immigration laws are expected to change some of that. Experts expect a grouping of migrants into different categories, such as skilled or unskilled workers, with rules then adopted for each category.

As yet, anti-immigrant sentiment is limited in China. In fact, some seem to think that the increase in migrants reflects the country’s success. China’s economic growth is inspiring other Asians to come live the “Chinese Dream,” says the Wall Street Journal. One netizen even wrote on a blog: “Asian immigrants, no problem, welcome to China!”

That does not necessarily extend to all races. “Vietnamese ok. But black people? – forget it,” was one not wholly unrepresentative comment in an online forum on immigration. Certainly, black immigrants will encounter a lot more prejudice, reflecting a more pervasive racist trend in attitude among most Chinese (see WiC5).

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.