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Migrant workers in China find new jobs — and precarious conditions — in COVID control

Workers clean and disinfect the floor at the National Exhibition and Convention Center NECC, the largest makeshift hospital, in Shanghai. Many jobs in these temporary facilities are drawn from the pool of unemployed migrant workers.
Ding Ting
Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images
Workers clean and disinfect the floor at the National Exhibition and Convention Center NECC, the largest makeshift hospital, in Shanghai. Many jobs in these temporary facilities are drawn from the pool of unemployed migrant workers.

BEIJING — Like millions of migrant workers before him, Chen Haonan hoped to cash in on a decades-long real estate boom by leaving the rural areas in Shenzhen and becoming a property salesman in the city.

But an economic downturn and strict controls on the ability of developers to borrow and build as much as they did before put him out of that job last year.

Unemployed, Chen found work through a temp hiring agency in the only sector really growing these days in China: COVID control. His first job was a months-long stint testing residents during Shenzhen's most recent lockdown late last year.

He is now among the tens of thousands of health workers traveling the country, enforcing periodic lockdowns, staffing dozens of state isolation wards and running mass testing campaigns.

For decades, China's economy has relied on an itinerant class of what Chinese policymakers call its "floating population" — some 300 million migrant workers who drift from city to city doing construction work, service jobs such as sales work, and factory assembly, often in precarious conditions. They assembled phones, staffed restaurants and built the country's skyscrapers.

However, the economic downturn and more regulations mean many of those sectors are shrinking. As a result, labor agencies are pivoting and heavily recruiting now-underemployed migrant workers to fill a new niche for cheap, and equally precarious, labor: COVID control.

These migrant workers are now among the ranks of the dabai, or "big whites" as China calls them: the ubiquitous health monitors clothed in white protective gear — anonymous, yet essential to COVID policy.

"We were trained by other volunteers, but they are not health professionals nor familiar with the procedures," says Chen.

Transferred to Shanghai, a worker is shocked by conditions there

Despite recent outbreaks in Jilin province and in Shanghai that have infected hundreds of thousands of people, China has vowed to stick with its zero tolerance COVID policies. That requires tens of thousands of workers. Now Shanghai, a city of 25 million residents, is under total lockdown. Chen was transferred in early April from Shenzhen to staff Shanghai's National Exhibition and Convention Center, which has been converted into a state isolation ward for 15,000 feverish people. He is shocked by the conditions there.

"I am most worried that they cannot guarantee my own health. There are other workers who are COVID positive but we sleep next to them, four to a room that is leaking rainwater," Chen said in a phone interview. "The infected workers have simply been reassigned to work as guards or trash pickers for the expo center rather than tending to people inside."

Their dormitory right outside the expo center has no running water or drinking water. When Chen and other workers asked for bottled water, he says his manager told the workers to drink from a nearby river.

In mid-April, Chen's self-test showed he was positive for COVID-19. He has a scratchy throat, but instead of resting, he's had to keep on working because he's not allowed to leave the center and has not been officially diagnosed.

"The leaders are not very responsible. They react very slowly to our needs," says Chen.

Shanghai Land Group, the state-owned real estate firm, one of the operators of the expo center employing the workers, did not respond to NPR's phone calls. The hiring agency that recruited Chen and about 30 other workers declined to comment.

Migrant workers encounter job insecurity and unreliable employment agencies

Just as the previous generation of migrant workers hopped from city to city, meeting seasonal labor demands, migrant brigades of big whites now rotate from lockdown to lockdown, filling in whenever needed.

"The outbreak in Shenzhen is mostly controlled, so they have started firing workers. I got a group of buddies together to look for the next lockdown for more work," says Lu, a self-proclaimed professional COVID worker. He asked that NPR use only his last name for fear of state retribution.

After Lu lost his job at a metal supply shop during the pandemic, he signed up for a temporary gig with Shenzhen's government, administering antigen tests and surveilling apartment complexes to ensure that no one was secretly breaking home isolations. Six-hour shifts, twice a day, netted him 600 yuan, or about $90 a day — about twice what he would normally make.

However, this sporadic, sometimes hazardous work enjoys few legal protections, leaving workers vulnerable to avaricious employment agencies.

When Shanghai locked down, Lu said he was willing to go and help "scan buildings" or saolou — COVID slang for going door to door and persuading unwilling residents to take an antigen test. But when Lu arrived in Shanghai last week, the temp agency that had hired him tried to claim most of his salary as a finder's fee.

"We were tricked by a corrupt labor agent," says Lu. He and about 100 of his fellow workers protested last Sunday outside the district government building in Shanghai's Xuhui district but were soon chased off by Shanghai police on the basis that they were inciting public disorder. Some of the workers are now sleeping on the floor in one of Shanghai's train stations, unable to leave the city.

Unkept promises about living quarters and training

Last year, Huang Bowen lost his job as an e-commerce marketer when tough new rules came into effect last year, so he agreed to a job administering PCR tests to residents under home lockdown in Shanghai this month, taking a 20-hour bus ride to the city under lockdown.

To his surprise, the bus took them directly to a makeshift quarantine center instead of the residential compound he had been expecting. "That is not the kind of work we'd been promised! All of us workers did not dare enter the isolation ward without proper health training," says Huang.

That left the indignant workers in a quandary. In Shanghai, they had nowhere to stay, but the outbreak had paused most public transportation services and most cities were unwilling to take those who had recently been to Shanghai.

After calling the police, Huang did make it back to Shenzhen by bus, though he remains shaken. "I no longer have plans to work in COVID prevention. Instead, I am going home to my parents in Jiangxi province, where they have helped to find me a job," Huang told NPR from a quarantine facility provided by Shenzhen's government.

However, migrant workers often have few other employment options as 45 Chinese cities have imposed some kind of lockdown policy, affecting about 40% of all economic activity, according to Nomura, a Japanese bank. Migrant Li Ke was already living in Shanghai when the lockdowns began. He is now wrapped up in PPE and working in a school turned into a makeshift quarantine facility, sleeping 10 to a room with other workers — better than what his fellow migrant workers are going through.

"I consider myself lucky. I got out of my workers dormitory in Shanghai before lockdown so at least I can walk around, earn some money and pay the rent."

This job carries a lot of stigma

Li Ke may feel lucky, but the work he has been assigned carries extreme stigma in a country where contracting the coronavirus imposes heavy costs on those infected and their close contacts.

Because of China's ongoing strict pandemic controls, anyone associated with COVID prevention work literally becomes untouchable. After weeks on the job, they need to be kept apart in quarantine from the rest of the population for at least two weeks. If they're lucky they're paid for that quarantine time once the job expires. Migrant workers who fall ill while working on COVID prevention teams say they have not received any care.

"Conditions are horrible. Even though national policy is only two weeks, authorities insist in keeping me in here for four weeks of quarantine," says Shi Wantian, who volunteered to work in a state quarantine center during an outbreak this year in the northern city of Langfang, not far from Beijing.

Within a week, he had contracted COVID-19, but he was not allowed to isolate in the very ward he was working in. Instead, he's being held in an off-the-grid facility, little more than a metal box with windows.

"I used to work at a factory for car parts, but during the lockdown, my work stopped so I volunteered to staff the isolation facility. Now the lockdown is over, but here I am in this state," Shi bemoaned.

Aowen Cao contributed research in Beijing.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.