‘The virus is terrifying, and so is being jobless’: COVID-19 has devastated Beijing’s migrant workers

Society & Culture

Many people from Beijing’s working class have yet to return to the city since the Spring Festival. With COVID-19 restrictions still in place, some simply never will. 



He Juan has theoretically been jobless for more than two months.

She works in a courtyard hotel located in Dongsi neighborhood near the center of Beijing, which has had no customers since the lunar New Year. She has received her base salary of 3,000 yuan for each of the past two months, but that basically only covers the rent for her one-room apartment in a nearby hutong. She’s been doing some pet-sitting for those stuck outside of Beijing, but that is far from enough.

Usually, March to May is the peak season for tourism in Beijing, and the busiest period of the year for the hotel, a time that makes up a major portion of the employees’ annual revenue. “All the bookings for April and May were canceled,” He said. “That’s when I got really worried about the future of the hotel.”

“I think I need to find a new job, or leave Beijing,” she added.

As a běipiāo (北漂, literally meaning “northern floater,” another name for migrant workers in Beijing), He’s dilemma is shared by many like her.

While China’s capital is trying to get back to normal, the fear of a second wave of infections means many restrictions are still in place, including a mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine for all arrivees from abroad, an apparatus that limits movement, and policies against large gatherings. These restrictions are most acutely felt by employees at small- and medium-sized businesses — and the city’s formerly huge migrant population.

According to a New Fortune report, the unemployment rate in China in the first quarter jumped from 5.2% to 6.2%, the sharpest increase since the rate was recorded. Big companies laid off 15% of their employees, while small- and medium-sized enterprises laid off a disturbing 40%. The people most affected by these changes have been those on the fringes.

Many migrant workers have been gritting their teeth in the hopes that the virus-related restrictions implemented in late January and early February would be temporary, but earlier this month, the Beijing government announced the city would continue these restrictions for the foreseeable future.

For many people, that was the last straw.

“I think beipiao are in a seriously bad situation. They need to reconsider if they can stay any longer in Beijing,” said Yang, a yoga instructor who used to work at private studios in Beijing. She was quarantined in Hubei after going back for Spring Festival more than two months ago, and has been hesitating about whether to return to Beijing.

“The virus is terrifying, and so is being jobless,” she added.

Photo via 163.com

Even before the pandemic, life for beipiao was anything but easy.

Many young people come to Beijing for a shot at a better life, especially if job opportunities are scarce in their smaller hometowns. But life in Beijing can be a struggle. The city is considered one of the most unaffordable cities in the world, with many workers facing ridiculous hours, low pay, high rent, and long commutes (for many, a one-way commute that takes less than an hour is a luxury).

The area around Tiantongyuan in Changping District, the northernmost stop on Subway Line 5, is filled with migrant workers because the rent is a lot more affordable. But most of the houses have been illegally renovated so more people can cram into these wooden or plastic blocks, with a 120-square-meter apartment sometimes hosting 10 to 20 people. Even kitchens get converted into bedrooms.

In 2017, a big fire in a densely packed illegal structure in Xihongmen claimed 19 lives, prompting Beijing authorities to crack down on similar group-renting arrangements. But that crackdown has only made it harder for migrant workers, who are now paying more for smaller spaces.

Some, like Cao Xing, move underground. When Cao first arrived in Beijing for an internship in 2016, she paid 300 yuan ($43) per month to live in an underground apartment.

“There were four of us sharing one room,” she told me. “One worked in the financial industry, I don’t think she was well-paid; one was a graduate who worked at KFC; and there was another intern like me.

“The room was equipped with old bunk beds and four desks. No place to take a shower but a smelly public toilet, where we found some spare space and hung up a piece of cloth with an iron wire as a makeshift ‘shower room.’

“The whole place had no light at all, it was very humid and suffocating, with low ceilings.”

I met another migrant worker a week ago on a street near a bustling shopping center in Sanlitun. He was wearing a black backpack that held most of his belongings, and looked very tired. I learned that he was originally from Henan Province.

“I came here right after the Chinese New Year, trying to get a job,” he said. “It’s been over three months, and I still haven’t been hired.”

I couldn’t really see his expression through his mask, but he sounded frustrated.

“I went to this building to ask if they need cleaners,” he said, pointing to the 3.3 Mansion, where a fancy suit from one of the tailors or a fancy meal can cost thousands. “I was told the salary is 2,000 yuan ($280) a month, and I need to clean all the stair steps of each floor and the toilets.”

“Can you imagine that? Only 2,000 bucks for doing so much work?” he asked.

Amid the dire situation, many beipiao have been forced to say goodbye to Beijing — and their dreams. Hard and unpredictable as life is in Beijing, many feel devastated to leave; their ambitions, which are wrapped up in the city, have been ground to a halt due to COVID-19.

On Xiányú 闲鱼, an online platform owned by Taobao that sells secondhand items, searches with the keyword “leaving Beijing” have proliferated.

On sale is everything from daily necessities like kitchenware to musical instruments, packaged Japanese courses, gym cards, and books. Browsing these lists, one gets a glimpse of all the items which people think will better their lives — indeed, will better themselves. Beijing had offered that promise.

One of the descriptions for a secondhand sofa reads: “It’s 90 percent new and very comfortable to sit on.”

It continues: “You will need a good sofa to lay down on, because life in Beijing is real tiring.”