Feb 12, 2020 - World

Coronavirus travel restrictions in China hit migrant workers hardest

Migrant workers in Quanzhou City on Jan. 15. Photo: He Canling/Xinhua via Getty Images

Migrant workers will be most negatively affected by the travel limits that China’s local governments have imposed to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, Eli Friedman of Cornell University tells Axios.

What's happening: After travel restrictions were put in place over the Lunar New Year holiday, migrant workers with jobs in cities under lockdown can’t get back to work.

  • These laborers often have no safety net or savings, so the loss of what might be weeks of income could plunge them into dire financial straits.
  • Many industries, particularly manufacturing, rely on cheap migrant worker labor. (There are an estimated 288 million migrant workers in China.) Without employees, companies based in quarantined cities may be forced to shut down operations.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government is taking some measures to help workers by requiring employers to continue to cover basic living expenses.

  • Yes, but: Officially, China has only one labor union, which is controlled by the Communist Party. That means it largely fails to challenge true power imbalances in the system.
  • “Employees don't have any mechanism for expressing their interests,” Friedman said.

Another concern: There's a lack of access to affordable medical care.

  • “For migrant workers specifically, there is a lot of data that shows their medical insurance coverage is abysmal,” Friedman said.
  • That means it’s harder for migrant workers with the coronavirus to receive timely treatment, and they may be “staying at home for longer periods of time potentially infecting others.”

The bottom line: Migrant workers are among China’s most vulnerable, and much of China’s manufacturing industry depends on them. If they can’t get back to their jobs soon, both they and the companies they work for will suffer.

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