WORK AT HOME: New workers in a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou City, Henan Province. Most of the workers are Henan locals (ZHAO PENG)
For most of China's 240 million farmers who leave their hometowns for manual jobs in cities, the only opportunity for family reunion is the Spring Festival, or Lunar New Year that fell on February 3 this year.
Many assembly line workers quit their jobs to go back home one month before the festival and decide whether to come back to cities two weeks after the festival. This schedule creates seasonal labor shortages in cities, which have been a big headache for owners of manufacturing facilities nationwide.
This year, the battle to hire enough migrant workers between factories in economically advanced eastern areas and those in the western areas has become particularly fierce.
China's traditional manufacturing hubs, the Yangtze and the Pearl river deltas, experienced acute labor shortages.
There would be a supply-demand gap of around 1 million workers in Guangdong in 2011, which accounts for about 4 percent of the total number of laborers in the province, said Ou Zhenzhi, head of the Human Resources and Social Security Department of the Guangdong Provincial Government, on January 25.
He said labor-intensive companies and processing plants would be most affected.
According to a report on Qianjiang Evening News, a local newspaper in Zhejiang Province, almost all employers in Yiwu, a well-known manufacturing hub for consumer commodities in the province, raise their offered wages by at least 10 percent after the Spring Festival to attract candidates.
Factories in central and western regions, including the most populous Henan Province, also saw worker shortages this year, China News Service reported.
A growing headache
Labor shortages first hit China in the second half of 2003, affecting mainly southeastern coastal areas.
At the end of 2008, a large number of migrant workers returned home for the Spring Festival earlier due to their difficulty finding jobs amid impacts of the global financial crisis.
However, since the second half of 2009, labor shortages have started to strike wider areas, including eastern, central and western provinces, as China's economy recovered quickly.
Lu Jiehua, a professor in sociology at Peking University, attributed the inadequate supplies partly to the development of inland areas.
"About 10 years ago, only the prosperous Pearl River Delta could provide lucrative jobs for migrant workers. Five years later, the Yangtze River Delta started to catch up," Lu told West China City Daily. "But in recent years, the economy of central areas grows dramatically, which has created enormous demand for laborers and diverted a large number of migrant workers."
Many large enterprises have also set up manufacturing facilities in central and western parts of China, which has created more job opportunities for migrant workers in their hometowns.
Taiwan-based Foxconn, the world's largest electronics contract manufacturer, for instance, invested $64 million to open plants in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, and Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province, last year. Both Sichuan and Henan were previously major labor sources of eastern areas.
Zhai Yanli, an official with the Information Center under the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, told Century Weekly magazine total job vacancies would grow by 15 percent nationwide this year while the growth rate for central and western provinces was expected to stand around 25 percent.
Lu Zhihua, an official with the Human Resources and Social Security Department of Henan Provincial Government, said statistics of 2010 indicated that most newly added working population in Henan found local jobs while many migrant workers who had been employed out of the province also came back over the year.
Gong Sen, a scholar with the Development Research Center of the State Council, said his surveys revealed the increase in job opportunities in central and western areas and the narrowing salary gaps between eastern and western areas had made migrant workers' costs of working away from home, such as homesickness and lack of parenting for children, not worthwhile.
Children are becoming a key reason why migrants refuse to work far away from home. People born in the 1980s were an important force of migrants in the past decade. But as they start to become parents, they become reluctant to leave home.
Wei Dongwei from Luyi County of Henan had been working in Yiwu for six years. This year, his company promised to raise his monthly salary to 2,600 yuan ($394), but he decided to stay in his hometown to be with his 4-year-old son.
"In 2009 when my wife and I came back during the Spring Festival, my son didn't recognize us," he recalled. "I tried to have him sleep on the same bed with me, but he cried."
This year, Wei finds his son extremely grumpy. "Other kids in his kindergarten sneered at him, saying he was abandoned by his parents," said Wei. The young father believes if he left his son behind, the boy's future would be ruined.
Wei finally found a job in a factory about 5 km away from his home, which offers a monthly salary of 2,300 yuan ($348).
A survey by the All-China Women's Federation shows China has about 40 million left-behind children in rural areas below age 14.
Most Chinese demographers agree China's working population will peak by around 2015.