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China Facing Shortage of Workers - 2004-09-08

Despite a population of some 1.3 billion people, China is facing a shortage of workers in its prosperous eastern provinces.

A group of about 40 construction workers, many of them uneducated farmers from China's impoverished West, lined up Wednesday outside a Beijing building site where work had suddenly and without explanation been stopped. The workers staged a silent protest after the foreman told them all to go home, without explaining why they no longer had jobs.

This worker said that in today's China, everyone has to work. If one does not work, he says, one cannot eat.

For more than a decade people from the provinces have been pouring into and around the coastal cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong, where jobs in the country's exploding economy have been plentiful.

Free-market reforms, the closing of money-losing state-owned companies and the abandonment of the so-called "iron rice bowl" have made additional workers available for the East Coast's factories and enterprises.

But now job insecurity, low or in some cases unpaid wages and harsh working conditions are among the things causing what China's Labor Ministry says is a shortage of migrant laborers along that same East Coast. Analysts say many workers are opting to stay home, even it that means earning lower wages at factories in their own provinces.

Scenes like Wednesday's protest in Beijing are cause for concern for China's communist leaders, who are working to prevent unrest among the approximately 100 million farmers who have left their lands to work in the cities in recent years.

The Labor Ministry's Social Security Administrative Center this week issued a policy paper that laid out the challenges China faces in dealing with a surging number of laid-off workers and retirees.

The report says people over the age of 60 now make up 11 percent of China's population, a situation that analysts attribute in part the one-child policy.

Meng Zhaoxi, director general of office that issued the report, says the number of people retiring is now much higher than the number of young people entering the workforce. He says funds to pay retirement pensions are running out.

"Since China is an aging society, we are facing more and more pressure in terms of funding," he said.

The document Mr. Meng's office prepared offered no solutions, but said officials are looking for ways to strengthen the country's welfare system.