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Coronavirus

China faces labor shortage with 200m migrant workers idled

Factories and construction sites feel outbreak's squeeze far from Hubei

Workers assemble Audi cars at an FAW-Volkswagen Automobile factory in Changchun, northeastern China, on Feb. 17. (Xinhua via AP)

BEIJING/GUANGZHOU -- Chinese factories and construction sites face labor shortages as an estimated 220 million migrant workers have yet to return from their hometowns two weeks after the Lunar New Year holiday, with travel disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak.

Many of those who have made the trip back must quarantine themselves for 14 days, leaving employers struggling to cope with an uncertain labor supply.

Only 80 million or so of the nation's roughly 300 million migrant workers, who typically move from rural villages to urban areas, had returned from the holiday, the Ministry of Transport said Saturday. The ministry expects 120 million to return this month and 100 million in March.

"Restrictions on domestic travel have made it difficult for employees visiting their hometowns to gather in force," a source at a Japanese-owned electronics maker said.

The company partially restarted a factory Feb. 10 in Wuxi, near Shanghai, but cannot resume full production due to a shortage of workers.

A construction-industry source in Guangdong Province said many migrant laborers come from distant Hubei Province, the epicenter of the outbreak.

"Work on various factory expansion projects is supposed to start, but we don't know when we'll be able to secure enough manpower," this person said.

Curfews and other restrictions have been imposed not only in Hubei, but also in other provinces, to prevent further infection. Some villages have thrown up unapproved roadblocks on their own.

For areas with low levels of infection, the State Council approved Tuesday a measure to remedy "unwarranted restrictions" that prevent workers from returning to their jobs.

Quarantine requirements await those who do come back. Fearing a rise in infection from migrants, Beijing and other cities have tightened such restrictions. Even foreigners returning to China from abroad must quarantine themselves for 14 days.

Chinese economic indicators have started blinking signs of industrial distress. Coal usage at six major electric utilities -- an indirect measure of factory activity -- is only slowly returning to normal levels from the holiday lull, according to a Tuesday report from Zhongtai Securities.

Power plants burn 560,000 tons of coal a day at this time in typical years to generate industrial power alone, but usage now comes to only 310,000 tons. Industrial activity is below 60% of normal levels, the brokerage estimates.

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