Sharing a double bed with a roommate in a 20-square-meter bedroom, Ma Chao is quite satisfied with his living conditions.
A year ago Ma lived with another person in a 7-sq-m room, sharing a bathroom with more than 20 people. He had difficulty finding work and earning money, so he slept in a job hostel.
“We rarely stayed in the room, which was only enough to put a bunk bed and a desk in,” said Ma, 24, now a salesman at a chemical company. “We chose to live in this kind of accommodation because it costs about 30 yuan ($4.60) a day, which is very cheap in Shanghai.”
Ma was born in Yancheng, Jiangsu province, and graduated from Wuhan Textile University, majoring in English. He came to Shanghai last year, looking for a job.
He and other migrants like him found the job hunt trying, and they needed financial support from their parents from time to time. “One evening we only had 10 yuan left altogether and we had to buy and share a few steamed buns for our dinner.”
Where to live at the lowest cost is the first and biggest problem for newly arrived, unemployed migrants. Youth hostels specially designed for young job seekers fill the bill for many.
Most rental properties require tenants to pay at least one month’s rent as a deposit, sign a one-year lease and give a month’s notice before moving out. Job hostels allow residents to check in or out without notice, and fees are charged at a daily rate.
“We aim to provide convenience and assistance to enable new graduates who come to Shanghai for jobs to check in and out anytime they want, as a combination of hostel and rental apartment,” said Tong Xianjin, owner of Bai Yuan Job Hostel. He opened the first of his five hostels in Shanghai four years ago.
“The occupancy rate of our rooms averages 80 to 90 percent,” Tong said, “with more students coming between June and August, the peak of graduation season, and staying up to half a year before moving out to live nearer to where they work.”
The job hostel concept was introduced to China in 2006, when the booming real estate market pushed prices out of most job seekers’ range.
“Different types of rooms are available, from single room, double room to quadruple room, a room for six people and eight people, with prices from 10 yuan to 80 yuan a day, ” Tong said.
As at traditional hostels, shared bathrooms and kitchen are available for up to 20 residents. At these hostels, tenants have to show their college diplomas before checking in.
In its latest report, in February, the State Department of Human Resources and Social Security forecast that more than 6.5 million college graduates would rush to job fairs in June and August along with senior high or junior school graduates who quit school, laid-off urban workers and retired soldiers. They would total 24 million job seekers – competing for 12 million jobs.
Cheaper but illegal
A different type of competition has emerged – from lower-cost job hostels opened without certification in standard residential apartments. Xiao Ning, 25, lived in one for a few months to save money.
“It was a three-bedroom apartment with two bathrooms, a tiny kitchen and a living room that was shared by almost 30 male migrant workers,” Xiao said. He spent his first two months in Shanghai sleeping in a six-bunk bedroom in the 200-square-meter apartment for 10 yuan a day.
A graduate of Hubei University of Economics, Xiao arrived in Shanghai in April 2010 looking for internships and found a job in the third month. He is a buyer for a local chain supermarket.
“It was too hard and too expensive to find a job in Shanghai, especially for those students like me who did not graduate from a branded university. It left me no choice but to squeeze myself into an extremely crowded place in the beginning.”
Xiao said many apartments in the neighborhood were being used as job hostels. Most had white walls, concrete floors and the cheapest wooden beds.
It took him three months after being hired to find the right place, and he now lives alone in a more appealing one-bedroom apartment. He just paid off the money he had borrowed from friends over Spring Festival because he hadn’t wanted to ask for more money from his parents, who live in the countryside of Anhui province.
Traditional migrant workers have experience working in fields. The new ones were brought up in cities by their migrant worker parents, and they either stayed there or moved to other cities to work right after graduating from college.
This new generation of migrant workers accounts for 61.6 percent of China’s migrant population, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Shanghai’s 23 million residents include 9 million new generation migrants, 39 percent of the population.
A report released by All-China Federation of Trade Unions defined the new generation as those born in 1980 or later, who are 16 or older and who work in cities but still have a rural hukou (household registration).
Zhou Chenjing, 28, is typical of the new, white-collar migrant workers in Shanghai. She sees herself as a strong woman who has suffered enough to receive better social benefits in the city.
Like most migrant workers, Zhou came to Shanghai five years ago with nothing. She squeezed into a mixed-gender underground job hostel for a month, shared an apartment with a stranger and her boyfriend for nearly a year and now lives with a friend in a two-bedroom apartment.
“I changed jobs four times before obtaining the current one,” said Zhou, who is a quality inspector at a toy factory in Shanghai. “I was not satisfied with the salaries and social benefits. I believed that I deserved more than what my former employers offered.”
According to market data, the average monthly pay for basic service jobs in Shanghai is about 1,300 yuan, barely enough for a migrant worker to feed herself.
Zhou’s first job was as an intern at a trading company. She worked three months, getting paid 1,500 yuan a month, and left in the fourth when the boss refused to raise her salary to 3,000 yuan, as agreed.
“I didn’t expect to make more than 5,000 yuan a month but I preferred to have a more kindly employer who would take care of staff members by offering social insurance and reasonable subsidies,” Zhou said. Her current net income is 4,500 yuan.
Li Huaying, who owns a local job agency, has been in charge of migrant worker recruitment for years. The agency holds job fairs at Shanghai Railway Station each year after Spring Festival, recruiting workers who went home for the holiday, and in the summer, to reach migrant college graduates.
“The situation was extremely tough this year because only dozens of applicants handed in resumes while hundreds of positions were available,” Li said. “Few local laid-off and retired workers want to lower their status to work in factories.”
But it is not factory jobs that newly minted college graduates are looking for. Li said the migrant job applicants, like Zhou, are more concerned than Shanghai residents with the work environment, social welfare, leisure time and monthly incomes of 3,000 yuan or more.
Those kinds of expectations make their job search tougher – and extend the young migrants’ stays in temporary housing.
Tong, the job hostel owner, estimated that Shanghai has more than 100 registered job hostels accommodating at least 10,000 recent college graduates, and more than 500 illegal hostels serving thousands more.
Ren Yuan, a professor in Fudan University’s school of social development and public policy, considers housing one of the top essential problems for job seekers. He said it should be solved through cooperation between government and the local authorized job hostels as soon as possible – by shutting down the illegal, underground hostels and easing the property difficulties among young migrant graduates.
“Shanghai, as the pioneer in first-tier cities, has to respect each individual new migrant and provide better working and living conditions to each of them, then help them fit in the society well,” Ren said.
Moving back home: the upside and the down
While there is no shortage of people available for work in China, their distribution is problematic. “In China, we have 200 million people without jobs, and a huge gap between urban and rural areas,” Premier Wen Jiabao said last year at the China Development Forum.
There also are 200 million migrant workers, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. But the once seemingly endless flow of migrant workers to big cities and coastal provinces seems to be dwindling.
Many migrants who returned to their hometowns for Spring Festival decided to stay for reasons that include the lower cost of living, new prospects closer to home and the high pressure of urban life.
According to a survey last year by National Bureau of Statistics, 41.5 percent of migrant workers were unmarried in 2009 and facing challenges in job competition, healthcare and housing.
Without a stable job with regular income, good healthcare and housing assistance, they can’t afford to marry and raise a family.
“To solve the imbalance of income and life expenses, migrant workers choose to earn a bit lower in their hometowns and also take care of their families instead of coming to cities,” said Zhang Zhenning, senior HR consultant at China-HR’s talent research center in Shanghai.
Employers should offer them better living conditions, higher incomes and a home-like atmosphere, Zhang said.
The Wenzhou Shoe and Leather Industry Association is taking that approach with its blue-collar migrant employees. “We are urging shoe company owners to add more entertainment activities for their workers on the weekends,” said Lin Jinyou, the group’s deputy secretary-general.
In addition, Lin said, the association changed its focus this year from product numbers to enhancing cooperation between employers and workers. That’s the way to produce long-term success, he said.