No job and no place to live: the ordeal of a rural migrant in the Shanghai lockdown

BEIJING: When Shanghai began its draconian Covid-19 lockdown two months ago, the French restaurant where Sun Wu waited tables closed and the 22-year-old, like many other rural migrants, lost his job.
To make ends meet, Sun helped sort through government deliveries for residents in lockdown, earning 250 yuan ($38) a day and moving from a dorm to live in the warehouse where she worked as required by Covid rules.
However, after three weeks it had to leave the warehouse. His girlfriend, a migrant worker who had worked in the reception of the same restaurant, needed urgent medical attention.
With ambulance services extended, Sun paid a delivery van driver 500 yuan to take them to a hospital on April 25 and underwent surgery that night to remove a cyst in his stomach.
He stayed by his side until he was discharged on May 6. She bought him flowers and took them to her bedroom.
But Sun had nowhere to go.
The warehouse was unable to receive him due to strict Covid rules and his bedroom lacked the space to isolate him as required. With train services suspended, he was unable to return to Dali, his hometown 3,000 kilometers away in the southwestern province of Yunnan.
“I felt like I didn’t have any cards left to play,” he said.
China’s uncompromising “covid zero” policies have hit the world’s second-largest economy. Many of Shanghai’s 25 million people complain of loss of income, difficulties getting food and mental stress. But migrant workers, unable to work from home or earn a steady salary, have it much worse.
More than 290 million people in China’s vast countryside are migrant workers, drawn to coastal megacities in particular to work in factories, construction, restaurants and other low-skilled jobs. Paid largely by the hour or day and without stable contracts, some can earn more than 10,000 yuan in a good month, but most pocket much less.
Its cheap labor has helped turn cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen into bastions of Chinese prosperity.
But the lockdowns have pushed many into precarious situations, exposing deep veins of inequality in Chinese society at a time when President Xi Jinping, who is expected to secure an unprecedented third leadership term this year, has made “common prosperity” a priority.
Their plight has gained sympathy as stories like Sun’s go viral, but with so much suffering widespread amid the shutdown, calls for action to help migrant workers specifically have been few and far between.
sleeping out in the open
As migrant workers often do, Sun had to improvise.
Picking up his bike from a parking lot, he pedaled through the deserted streets of Shanghai 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 crying.”
That first night he found a patch of grass near a subway stop. The second night was a park; then a closed mall; then a covered pedestrian bridge. Security continued to chase him away.
During the day, he ate food cooked by his girlfriend while they chatted through the gaps in the wall of their compound.
While riding his bike, Sun said he saw “hundreds” of other homeless immigrants.
Even if they are not homeless, many migrant workers have been trapped in crowded dormitories or have spent the night sleeping in the factories or construction sites where they work. Truckers have spent days on the roads, unable to drive through cities without quarantining.
“Once again, migrant workers are treated as cheap and disposable,” said Diana Fu, an expert on China politics and labor at the University of Toronto.
It rained heavily on the seventh night that Sun spent on the streets. Not knowing what to do, he called the police for help.
An official “told me to figure it out,” Sun said.
Shanghai police, the Shanghai government and China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs did not respond to Reuters requests for comment. The Shanghai government said in late April that companies would be guided to “take care of migrant workers.”
Desperate, Sun turned to social media.
“I slept in parks, slept in squares, watched Lujiazui at 3 a.m., and fed homeless stray cats like me,” he wrote in a May 12 post on the Weibo social media platform, referring to Shanghai’s financial district. .
“I just want to find a place where I can stay and eat.”
The post was widely shared, sparking outrage over the lack of support mechanisms for immigrants, a problem stemming from China’s hukou, or residence registration system, designed in the 1950s.
Without a hukou in the cities where they work, migrant workers are often denied access to education, health care and other services. Despite numerous promises of reform by lawmakers, only a few smaller cities have made it much easier for migrant workers to become hukous.
While Sun may have gained sympathy, policymakers are thought to be more concerned with urban youth unemployment. Many migrant workers have not necessarily lost their jobs due to the closures, just most or all of their income.
The unemployment rate for immigrant workers is 6.6%, only slightly higher than the overall unemployment rate. By contrast, the rate of urban youth has soared to 18.2%, its highest level on record, as corporate hiring weakens amid the pandemic and a crackdown on private education, technology and other sectors.
“Immigrants are not on the conscience of the (Chinese Communist) Party right now,” said Valarie Tan, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, arguing that one-party rule requires maintaining middle-class confidence in the future.
The day after Sun’s viral Weibo post, another police officer called him. They sent him to a government quarantine center, where he shared a larger tent with another migrant worker.
Shanghai remains largely under lockdown, but some trains are running again. On Thursday, Sun and his girlfriend took one to Taizhou, 500 kilometers to the south, where he has family.
They will quarantine for two weeks and then wait for Shanghai to return to normal. The city has signaled its plans to reopen starting in June, though it’s not yet clear how extensively and quickly that will happen.
“This nightmare can end,” Sun said. “And then a new one will come.”

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