The real heroes of China's economic transformation are not to be found in the glass and chrome towers of big corporations. Nor are they to be seen prowling the pile-carpeted corridors of power. China's rise is built on humble foundations. The country girls with apple cheeks and floral headscarves in buses on their way to the city, the men with bundles squatting on the forecourt of Beijing's railway station, the migrant workers toiling on production lines 14 hours a day – these are the people to whom China owes its emergence.
It was the promise of cheap, efficient labor that lured foreign investors in their tens of thousands in the 1980s and 1990s. It is the product of their factories, and those of domestic competitors, that drives China's extraordinary export machine. Beijing's stash of foreign exchange reserves, now standing at over US$480 billion, derives primarily from the efforts of a mobile army of laborers.
News cause for concern
So when the news dribbled out over the last month that all is not well with China's migrant labor force, it was just cause for concern. The Pearl River Delta, a sprawling region of factories bordering Hong Kong, is short of about 2 million migrant workers, the Ministry of Labor and Social Security said.
Parts of Zhejiang and Fujian, two dynamic provinces on the east coast, are also experiencing labor shortfalls. This news came as a shock, not least because, according to conventional mythology, China is supposed to have a huge reserve of surplus rural labor that is ready to move to the cities when required.
But although such surprise was warranted, the situation is not as serious as some at first thought. China has not exhausted its supply of rural labour; unemployment and underemployment remain rife across a rural economy in which some 800 million people live. But the dynamics of the migrant labour market are changing.
Fewer workers are now willing to put up with the low wages, delayed payments and poor conditions to be found in many of the sweatshops of the Pearl Delta. Revealingly, the Yangtze Delta, where factories tend to be higher on the technology ladder and can therefore pay more, has not experienced a labor shortage.
In addition, the rising prices of farm commodities this year have added extra incentives to farmers to remain on the land. Rising rural incomes and expenditure are meanwhile creating new local economies in towns and villages across the land. There has also been a movement of factories inland from coastal areas, creating employment opportunities nearer to home for many peasant workers.
The lesson for factory bosses, the labor ministry said, is to offer higher wages and better conditions for migrant workers. At last, their real contribution to China's emergence is starting to be acknowledged.