The pandemic started in Wuhan. The lockdown there hit the migrant workers hardest inside. A year later, confidence prevails.
WUHAN taz | It is five o’clock in the morning with no inkling of sunrise, and yet hundreds of men with orange safety vests and yellow protective helmets have already gathered under an otherwise deserted city motorway bridge in Wuhan. Some of them quickly devour their breakfast – boiled eggs and dumplings – or frantically smoke the last cigarette before starting work. The others are already sitting in delivery vans, ready to go.
Li Wei also moved to Wuhan’s largest day labor market on this cold, damp January morning. He’s been coming here for several years. For a small fee, he says, the middlemen drive him to the surrounding construction sites, where he works until five in the afternoon.
“Despite everything, I prefer hard work because I get paid every day and actually always find work,” says Li, who earns the equivalent of up to 25 euros per day. With long-term jobs, however, you often run the risk of being cheated out of your wages by greedy bosses.
A year ago, Wuhan was still part of the epicenter of the corona pandemic. The world’s first Covid-19 outbreak prompted the local government to take a drastic step at the end of January: It put the city into a complete lockdown. There were no underground trains or buses, and the motorway connections were completely cut. The residents of the metropolis were locked in their apartments for 76 days.
“If you work hard, you will at least find something”
For teachers or civil servants, the exceptional situation was at least economically non-existential, after all, they continued to receive their salaries. Many employees were also able to continue working from home, and some young entrepreneurs were also able to tap new sources of income on the Internet. But for those working in the low-wage sector, that is, for people like Li Wei, the lockdown meant several months of lost wages.
A year later, there is little evidence of the crisis mood on Wuhan’s day labor market, even if there is a little less work compared to the time before the pandemic. “If you work hard, you will at least find something,” says one of the men here who, like almost everyone else, comes from one of the surrounding villages and lives temporarily in a poor dormitory. The average age of day laborers is 50 years, the younger ones prefer to go to the factories to earn money. Often they are also better trained and work in offices.
Over the years, an economic cycle of its own has developed under the expressway bridge: A woman deep-fried pancakes in her cookshop. A seller offers charging cables and work clothes on a plastic tarpaulin on the sidewalk. And around the corner, taxi drivers are waiting to be hired by the middlemen as additional transport services to the construction sites.
It is gradually getting dark and most of the workers have already left for their construction sites. A 57-year-old man is still waiting for the right offer, but he is confident. When asked how long he intends to work on the construction site, he says: “I have no social security and have a child to look after. As long as I can work, I will too ”.
A new skyscraper every few weeks
The fact that cheap labor is needed everywhere in Wuhan can be seen at first glance: the city, which extends over an area twice the size of Berlin, is a sea of houses criss-crossed by construction sites and cranes.
In just a few months, entire barracks will be demolished and replaced by modern apartment complexes. In the city center on the Yangtze, a new skyscraper joins the ultra-modern skyline every few weeks, which glows in neon colors at night.
There are around 300 million so-called labor migrants in China. They move from rural provinces to the cities to earn money. A sixth of them work in the construction sector. “As a result of demographic change, however, the number of migrant workers will decrease in the coming years,” says Robin Xu, an infrastructure expert, “also in the construction sector.” Fewer and fewer people wanted to undertake the hard physical work.
The workers who helped build the country are getting older. During the economic crisis of 2008, the Chinese state boosted the economy by building highways and rail networks – with the help of migrant workers. In the corona crisis, they no longer play such an important role in the economic recovery.
Not a pure success story
During the lockdown in early 2020, China’s economy collapsed by a historically unprecedented 6.8 percent; in Wuhan, economic output fell by as much as 40 percent over the same period. But since the number of infections could be reduced to almost zero in late spring, the economy recovered at an impressive rate. China’s gross domestic product rose by a full 2.3 percent in the crisis year. China was the only large country in the world to come off with a plus.
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But the country’s pandemic control strategy is not a pure success story. As in the rest of the world, the pandemic has exacerbated social inequality in China. Above all, however, consumption picked up again only very late, which many small traders are still feeling the effects of.
The same goes for the business people in Hanzheng Street, which is located in a textile district. Here the less wealthy city dwellers in Wuhan stock up on clothes. Hundreds of shops line up, in small corner shops you can have suits made to measure, and you can buy sexy underwear and pajamas. Some vendors have set up clothes rails with down jackets on the sidewalks.
The street and the mall
A saleswoman who waits until nine o’clock every evening for walk-in customers says: “The streets used to be a lot more crowded. The fact that so few customers come also has to do with the fact that the government has called on people to stay at home if they don’t necessarily have to go out. ”Although she has lowered her prices, she is hardly getting rid of her goods.
In the opposite Hanzheng-Markt, a nine-story shopping center with an attached “food court”, the shopkeepers are at least slightly optimistic. “The situation cannot be compared with last year, but it is getting better step by step,” says a saleswoman for men’s fashion.