COVID-19, Labor Mobility, and Care Work in China

Photograph taken by Zhang Chaoxiong, March 2020.
Yang Zhan examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on labor mobility, particularly for service workers, in China's growing economy.
[Ed. note: This is part of a series of reports on the COVID-19 pandemic from global cities.]

Since the 1990s, China has implemented various policies to reduce friction in the movement of labor and capital in order to insert itself into the global economy. For instance, China implemented nationwide urban reforms in the 1990s that untied laborers from work units (danwei). In rural China, the relaxed control of workers’ movement has enabled millions to enter the urban production and service sectors and become a “floating population.” In 2019, there were about 300 million rural migrants in China.

After the outbreak of COVID-19 in late January 2020, however, the Chinese government put a sudden halt on production and changed the mode of labor mobility dramatically. Many rural migrants who went back home for the Chinese New Year found themselves jobless and no longer expected to return to their adopted city to work. Many urbanites had to work from home and remain quarantined. Considering the fact that mobility has been a structural component of China’s economic growth and social composition, the sudden change in labor mobility is worthy of reflection. In this article, I will briefly introduce some of the emergent changes under the impact of COVID-19, with an emphasis on how gendered care work is reconfigured in the time of health crisis.

Care Work, Media Platforms, and the Redistribution of Mobility

From late January to April 2020, the containment of the coronavirus in China relied on changing patterns of mobility, or the management of people’s movement. However, the management of mobility cannot be equated to the sudden elimination or cessation of movement, as assumed by many. In fact, during the lockdown, while some movement was reduced and restricted, many people, especially those who provide essential care work in and beyond families, had to become more mobile so that others could stay at home. After all, care work and social reproduction have to continue no matter what.

Delivery workers in Shenzhen, 2020. Photo credit: Jianjiao.

The picture above shows a community in Shenzhen during the pandemic. In this particular community, roadblocks and checkpoints were set up to reduce the movement of people. However, as shown in the picture, the roadblocks did not really eliminate movement per se. In fact, to sustain people’s normal life within the community, delivery workers were pressured to become even more mobile due to the demand coming from apps and online services. In other words, the lockdown resulted in a redistribution of mobility: people who were not able or not willing to move outsourced their movement to others through media platforms. Those privileged enough to rely on telecommuting become more dependent on working-class people who have to make a living. It is because of their ability to outsource mobility to others that the middle class could mitigate their own risk of exposure.

Moreover, the redistribution of mobility was not only achieved through the market but also by the mobilization of care work at the community level. In China, community is a social infrastructure that plays a key role in providing basic subsistence for people not able to sustain their basic needs on their own. Therefore, the mobility of workers and volunteers at the community level became indispensable during the COVID-19 pandemic. Such workers were responsible for promoting virus-control tips as well as delivering food and medicine to households and neighborhoods in order to reduce the unnecessary movement of people. They also established close contact with people during the fourteen-day quarantine, monitoring but at the same time providing assistance to those quarantined. Much of the care work done at the community level also relied on media platforms. For example, many WeChat groups dedicated to exchanging information about child-rearing were temporarily used as a platform for information exchange and self-care. Volunteers collected orders through WeChat and then took turns shopping for the whole group. This media-enabled self-care also allowed for the redistribution of mobility.

Women’s Fragmented Mobility

Coronavirus disproportionately affects women, who are often the primary care providers for the family in China. Migrant women with a rural background were among those hardest hit during the pandemic: the majority of such women, who had limited opportunities for education, were incorporated into cities through low-end industry or service jobs. The trajectory of movement of migrant women workers is much more fragile than that of their male counterparts. On the one hand, their movement is driven by the labor demand in the market. On the other hand, women are expected to be the main care-work providers at home. Their own mobility must accommodate their family members, and they also must provide care for their families.

This double burden has further limited migrant women’s choice of jobs. The tension between employment and care work at home is often significant for migrant women. One way to ameliorate the tensions in their double duties is to find a more flexible job so they can generate income and take care of their families at the same time. In contemporary China, the number of migrant women is smaller than that of their male counterparts, yet more women are channeled into the flexible labor sector, which is no coincidence.

The flexibilization of work has meant migrant women face particularly difficult challenges in the COVID-19 pandemic. When economic activity is forced to slow down, migrant women are among the first groups to be laid off. After the outbreak of the pandemic, I contacted one of the informal workers, Wang, whom I got to know through my previous research. I asked if she was okay. She responded, “I now live in hell. I lost my job on Feb 1.” Wang was a temporary worker in real estate sales. Even though she had been doing this job since 2014, she had never managed to sign an employment contract. Wang was not the only one who experienced redundancy: she told me that almost half of her friends had suffered from job loss or a reduction in pay.

As well as being the most disposable and replaceable in the workplace, migrant women have also had to face a sudden surge of care work at home. With school closures, commercial food services shuttered, and the abrupt inaccessibility of household service during the lockdown, many find themselves having to simultaneously attend to childcare, homeschooling, cooking, cleaning, and other household chores. Some have had to give up their jobs to fulfill their family duties, even if they did not get laid off by their employers.  

Care Work and the Future of Labor Mobility

After the outbreak of COVID-19, anthropologist Xiang Biao pointed out that the movement of the migrant population in China had been reconfigured during the SARS epidemic in 2003.1 It was around this time that intermediaries such as labor service centers (劳动服务中心) became important in rural-to-urban migration in China. After the outbreak of COVID-19, the intermediary sector has grown even larger. Such intermediaries have developed and facilitated point-to-point transportation to send rural migrants to factories so production can be resumed. Xiang Biao’s important observations show that to ensure the economy returns to normal, the state and companies have done a lot to securitize people's movement, at the cost of the expansion of bureaucratic institutions which may not be scaled back in the post-coronavirus era.

Care work has not received the attention it deserves because it is not considered to be central to economic development, despite its essential role in sustaining life and society. On the one hand, the management of mobility has hit the lower class hardest because much of their work (domestic work, transportation, and so forth) cannot be done remotely. On the other hand, care work is one of the most essential types of work. It is exactly because care work cannot be done remotely that it cannot be replaced easily and has to be done in person.

Whether or not COVID-19 will alter China’s migration patterns remains to be seen. But one thing has become certain after this first wave of the pandemic: this is a good time for us to look into the human experience of labor mobility and reflect on its problems. For years, people doing the most essential work were caught in highly mobile and “flexible” livelihoods without much protection. During this current health crisis, they continue to be the most vulnerable and lack the necessary support. Their work can only be done in person, with people. How to build a social infrastructure that makes highly mobile workers safer and more resilient is a pressing issue now and may be the starting point for envisioning a better urban China in the future.


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