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China's temp agencies recruit underemployed migrants to enforce lockdown restrictions


China is trying to stick with its zero-tolerance COVID policy. That requires hiring tens of thousands of workers to test, isolate and lock down entire cities of millions of people. So where are all those workers coming from, and what are they going through? NPR's Emily Feng reports on China's new COVID caste.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Like millions of migrant workers before him, 20-year-old Chen Haonan decided the southern city of Shenzhen was where he would make his fortune. He moved down there hoping to cash in on a decades-long real estate boom by becoming a property salesman. But an economic downturn and strict controls on the property sector put him out of that job last year.

CHEN HAONAN: (Through interpreter) Then the pandemic came, and all our real estate projects were stopped.

FENG: So, jobless, Chen found work through a temp hiring agency in the only sector really growing these days in China - COVID control, enforcing the latest lockdowns, manning dozens of state isolation wards and running mass testing campaigns. His last job was a months-long stint testing residents during Shenzhen's lockdown late last year. Now Shanghai is in total lockdown, so he was sent to staff Shanghai's National Exhibition and Convention Center. It's been turned into a state isolation ward for 15,000 feverish people, and he's shocked by the conditions there.

CHEN: (Through interpreter) I am most worried that I cannot guarantee my own health. There are other workers who are COVID-positive, but we sleep next to them in a trailer. They've simply been reassigned to work as guards or trash pickers for the expo center rather than tending to people inside.

FENG: There's also no running water or drinking water in his dorm. His manager told him to drink from a nearby river when Chen asked for bottled water. Last week, his self-test showed he was positive for COVID. He has a scratchy throat, but instead of resting, he's had to keep on working because he's not allowed to leave the center.

CHEN: (Through interpreter) The leaders are not very responsible. They react very slowly to our needs.

FENG: For decades, China's economy has relied on an itinerant class of what Chinese policymakers call its floating population - some 300 million migrant workers who drift from city to city doing construction work, service jobs and factory assembly, often in poor conditions. An economic slowdown and more regulations means many of those sectors are shrinking. So labor agencies have been heavily recruiting now-underemployed migrant workers to fill a new niche for cheap labor - COVID prevention. Worker Lu Weishuai says it's thankless work done by non-locals.

LU WEISHUAI: (Through interpreter) All cities are the same - Shanghai, Wuhan. The vast majority look down on outsiders, migrant workers like me.

FENG: Lu calls himself a professional COVID worker. He lost his job at a metal supply shop during the pandemic, so he turned to COVID prevention in Shenzhen. He gets paid about a hundred dollars a day, working six-hour shifts twice a day.

LU: (Through interpreter) The outbreak in Shenzhen is mostly controlled, so they'll start firing workers. I got a group of buddies together, and we'll look for the next lockdown for more work.

FENG: When Shanghai got locked down, Lu said he'd go help scan buildings, or saolou (ph) - slang for going door to door, convincing unwilling residents to take a PCR test. Except this time, Lu didn't make it to Shanghai. He got off the bus halfway, after the temp agency tried to claim most of his salary as a finder's fee.

LU: (Through interpreter) We were tricked by a corrupt labor agent. I managed to get on another bus headed to a nearby city where there's been an outbreak linked to Shanghai's. So now I'm going house to house, knocking on doors and doing PCR tests there.

FENG: The same thing happened to Huang Bowen. He lost his job as an e-commerce marketer when tough new rules came into effect last year on online marketing. He agreed to a job administering PCR tests in Shanghai this month, taking a 20-hour bus ride to the city under lockdown.

HUANG BOWEN: (Through interpreter) Except the bus brought us straight to a quarantine center for symptomatic patients. That's not the kind of work we'd been promised. All of us workers did not dare enter without proper health training. But since we'd been in Shanghai, we couldn't just get on a bus back home. We'd been quarantined as soon as we got back.

FENG: After calling the police, Huang did make it home. He's in quarantine now, and he's now planning to live with his parents after, until he can find better work.

Migrant Li Ke was already living in Shanghai when the city shut down. He's now wrapped up in PPE and working in a school turned into a makeshift quarantine facility, sleeping 10 to a room with other workers. But that's better than what his fellow migrant workers are going through.

LI KE: (Through interpreter) I consider myself lucky. I got out of my workers dormitory in Shanghai before lockdown, so at least I can earn some money and pay the rent.

FENG: Li Ke may feel lucky, but the work he's doing carries extreme stigma. Because of China's ongoing strict pandemic controls, anyone associated with COVID prevention work literally becomes untouchable. After weeks on the job, they need to be kept apart and quarantined from the rest of the population for at least two weeks.

SHI WANTIAN: (Through interpreter) Even though national policy is only two weeks, authorities insist in keeping me in here for four weeks of quarantine.

FENG: This is Shi Wantian, who volunteered to work in a state quarantine center during an outbreak this year in the northern city of Langfang, not far from Beijing. Except, he contracted COVID in the first week. He was not allowed to isolate in the very ward he was working in. Instead, he's being held in an off-the-grid facility, little more than a metal box with windows.

SHI: (Through interpreter) I used to work at a factory for car parts, but during the lockdown, my work stopped. So I volunteered to staff at the isolation facility. Now the lockdown is over, but here I am in this state.

FENG: Fifteen years ago, these were the workers assembling phones in Chinese factories, building skyscrapers and fixing cars. Today, they're among the ranks of the dabai (ph), or big whites, as China calls them - the ubiquitous COVID workers clothed in white protective gear - anonymous, yet essential.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF RRAREBEAR'S "BACKPACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.