Zheng Xiaogang did not get on the train for Guangzhou after the Chinese Lunar New Year holidays this year, as he had in years past. Now, in Zheng's eyes, Guangzhou, the capital of south China's manufacture-dominant Guangdong Province, has lost some of its luster.
After he failed to find a job since the electroplate factory he worked in for five years closed last October, Zheng returned home to the countryside of Southwest China's Chongqing Municipality.
"The economic situations there is poor, so job opportunities must be scarce," said Zheng, 29. Now Zheng is a cook in a restaurant in downtown Chongqing. The 1,200-yuan (176 U.S. dollars) salary is only two thirds of what he earned in Guangzhou.
In order to earn their bread, millions of Chinese migrant workers who, like Zheng, have lost their jobs and returned home, are debating whether or not to go out again or to stay at home.
As the financial crunch evaporates global demand of China's toys, shoes and other commodities, a great deal of export-oriented factories closed or cut their outputs, leaving millions of migrant workers jobless and pushing them back home to the central and western countryside.
The Chinese government announced earlier this month that as many as 20 million migrant workers nationwide returned to their homes without prospects for future jobs. The future of these migrant workers has now become the focus of the public and the government.
According to statistics of the labor bureaus of some counties in Chongqing, more migrant workers returned home for this Lunar New Year holiday than last year. In some villages and townships, more than 80 percent of migrant workers returned home, compared to only30 to 40 percent in previous years.
Chongqing is a major labor force region in China, with more than3 million migrant workers earning their livings outside the province every year. The government of Chongqing estimated that about 1 million migrant workers would stay at home as they couldn't find jobs in China's coastal areas.
To go out again, or to stay at home, is the burning question for the migrant workers, as Guangdong provincial government announced earlier that the demand for labor forces in the first quarter this year would decrease as much as 5 percent compared to last quarter.
Guangdong is the largest labor force importer in China. It absorbed 55 percent of the total migrant workers last year. Besides Guangdong, other economically-developed provinces, such aseast China's Zhejiang and Jiangsu, are all suffering slumps of demand for labor forces now.
Most of the under-30 migrant workers said they had two strings to their bows -- seeking jobs in hometowns firstly, or going out again.
In some villages, migrant workers' incomes account for more than half of the total household income. Compared to their fellow villagers, they have much higher expectations for their salaries and their future.
"There is little future in the countryside," Zheng said. "Moreover, I am accustomed to living in cities. Country life is tedious."
The return of migrant workers is putting pressure on the local labor market. Zhou Hongying, who is in charge of the largest labor market in downtown Chongqing, said this year saw a 20 percent increase of job seekers in her market than in the previous years.
Unfortunately, due to the differences in industrial structure and wage standard between the coastal east and the inland west, it is difficult for them to find suitable jobs at home.
After returning home from Guangdong in September last year, Xiong Kangbao was frustrated with job seeking. Xiong, once a skilled worker in an injection-molding factory, found that there were less such factories in Chongqing, so he had to work as an odd-jobber in a hot springs bath center for two months.
As China's major manufacturing center, Guangdong helped China establish a reputation for being the world's factory. At the same time, workers in those plants, most of them farmers from countryside, have been trained to be skilled industrial workers.
However, agriculture and services in the cities, rather than manufacturing, are the major industries in the landlocked western part of China. Last year Guangdong's exports accounted for more than one fourth of the nation's total, while Chongqing's share was less than 0.5 percent.
To make things worse, the economic downturn has also hit the local limited manufacturing industries and the demands for labor force. According to Chongqing Human Resources Market, an institution sponsored by the municipal human resource and social security bureau, in the fourth quarter of last year, manufacturers' demands for labor forces slumped by more than 25 percent year-on-year, while residential and other services' demands increased by 133 percent.
"The salary in Chongqing is too low," said the 31-year-old Xiong. "How could I support the family -- I have a child now!"
The monthly salary that the bath center offered to Xiong was only about 1,000 yuan, less than one-third of what the injection molding factory paid him. After many disappointments, Xiong has returned to Guangdong and is hoping to find a skilled, higher-paid job.
On the other hand, employers are finding that although there are more job seekers than before, it is not easy to recruit suitable workers, as they could not accept job seekers' conditions. An employer from a machine plant in Yongchuan District of Chongqing said that fitters and millers wanted 2,000 to 3,000 yuan a month, but the plant could only offer them 2,000 yuan or less.
Some migrant workers choose to start their own businesses. After10 years working in Guangdong and finding little hope for the future, Chen Youquan went back home in Hechuan District of Chonqing and began to breed loach fish, a popular ingredient in hotpot -- a kind of local cuisine.
"Most of my friends in Guangdong are now facing troubles, with stagnant businesses and shrinking wages," said Chen, "they are all looking at me. If I can achieve success, most of them will consider going back home."
The Chinese government is enacting policies to help the jobless migrant workers. In its No. 1 official document, which addresses issues of agriculture and rural areas, the central government says farmers will be encouraged to start their businesses near their homes.
In central China's Henan, an agriculture-based and the most populous province in China, more than 10 million-yuan of small-scale credits have been provided to migrant workers so far, helping 600 plus to launch their businesses and creating 4,000 job opportunities.
Estimating about 150,000 migrant workers returning home to start their own businesses this year, Chongqing municipal government has planned to set pioneer parks for them. The government also plans to implement a series of preferential policies, such as increasing small-scale credits from 400 million yuan to 800 million, preferential tax policies and training programs.
"The return of migrant workers is not necessarily a bad thing," said Deng Weidong, director of employment bureau of Hechuan District of Chongqing. "They have funds. But more importantly, they have forward concepts and expert skills, which can spur the local people to start businesses."
However, starting a business is not easy. In order to launch his loach-breeding business, Chen Youquan applied for the 80,000-yuan small-scale credit to the government. He was told that the credit must be guaranteed by a civil servant, or he had to mortgage his property.
"I couldn't find a civil servant to help me. My land and house couldn't be mortgaged either because in China farmland and rural houses are owned by collectives," Chen said.
Ultimately, he had to borrow the money from his relatives.
The risks of starting a business make many migrant workers worry about their prospects. If they lose their hard-earned money, their lives will be difficult. Therefore, Li Chenglin, once a computer repairman in east China's Zhejiang Province, is hesitant to open his own computer repair shop.
"What am I supposed to do if I lose all the money I earned in these years? Who can guarantee my investment?" said Li.
Kang Houming, a migrant worker and a deputy to the National People's Congress, China's legislative body, said that the government should further expand aid policies to benefit more people. At the same time, migrant workers should take more advantage of these policies to help themselves.
Tang Min, deputy secretary general of China Development Research Foundation, noted that enterprises need to be helped to decrease jobless migrant workers. On the other hand, the government should develop new a labor market for them.
Tang said the social security and healthcare systems in rural areas are badly needed, as they would reduce farmers' worries about their expenses in the future