This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.
“Point-to-point” labour transport has become the standard way in which China is resuming labour mobility during the easing of lockdown.
Since 8 February 2020, the central government has urged employers and local governments to bring the 170 million rural-urban migrants, the majority of whom went home for the Chinese New Year in January and were subsequently confined in the countryside, back to work. This is done in a “point A-to-point B” manner: migrants are transported from home to the workplace directly in groups, led by designated personnel, on designated vehicles, following designated routes, to the designated enterprise. Each bus should be no more than half-full to allow for social distancing, and the last two rows are reserved as an isolation area in case passengers develop fever. Each migrant must go through a health check before departure, and have their temperature checked throughout the journey. All the migrants’ information, compiled and updated by the designated organizer, must be handed over to the employer on arrival.
In this way, more than 5 million migrants were transported on 200,000 charted coaches and 367 charted trains between mid-February and the end of March.[i] This happens outside China too. Thousands of agricultural workers have been airlifted from Eastern Europe to Germany and the UK, and from Mexico to Canada, since early April.
“Point-to-point” is precisely how I have characterized unskilled labour migration from China to Japan, South Korea and Singapore since the early 2000s. The transnational migrants “are extracted from their hometowns and inserted in a foreign workplace…migration in this case is not about how migrants move and explore, but is about how they are moved with great precision.” The control of labour in the worksite is supplemented, or even substituted, by the control of transnational mobility. For instance, when labour disputes arise, enterprises and labour intermediaries would send the worker back to China as a way to “settle” the case, which effectively discipline workers in their daily activity. Migrant workers are regulated more as mobile subjects than as workers.
During the current pandemic, the double pressure of containing the virus and of reviving the economy renders mobility a necessity and a security concern. The securitization of mobility means that (1) mundane mobility is associated with existential threats to the collective; (2) surveillance is imposed on all in order to prevent exceptions. Proportionality is out of the window: a single terrorist attack, or a single infection case, is regarded too many; (3) normal rules are suspended and extraordinary measures are introduced.[ii]
The securitization of international migration is not new, as widely documented in border studies. However, point-to-point transport is not concerned with who the foreigner is or what he/she wants to do, but instead focuses on how a person, in most cases a perfectly legitimate citizen, moves physically in a way that would not undermine health security. Borders appear irrelevant. The emphasis is to “tunnel”[iii] labour from one point to another directly, bypassing the space between, including all the borders.
The distinction between “human security” and “state security” has collapsed in the pandemic. The role of the Chinese government is central in point-to-point transport. Provincial governments, in both labour-sending and -receiving places, take charge of overall planning, prefecture governments identify demands and supplies, according to which counties of the sending place monitor the transport to eliminate gaps between “the home gate, the bus gate, and the factory gate.”[iv]. The Ministry of Transport has set up emergency telephone lines in its Logistics Security Office to deal with incidents during the transport.[v]
Provincial and prefectural governments on the receiving side are the main funded of this operation. They pay for the transport and even hand out cash to migrant workers on arrival.
The Chinese government also set up multiple on-line platforms to securitize labour mobility. The Platform for Rural-Urban Migrants Returning to Work, launched by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, enables governments and enterprises to coordinate in arranging transport. The National Road Passenger Service Management Platform, managed by the Ministry of Transport, collects detailed travel plans to make sure that the feeder stations on the way will carry out health checks and provide food and water without delay. There are also platforms and apps for enterprises or migrants to seek help[vi]. Real-time Health QR Code generated by mobile phones, which shows whether the individual has COVID symptoms and whether contacted possible infection sources in the past 14 days, is checked all the time. This Code is necessary for boarding a local bus or even, in many cities, stepping out of one’s gated community.
Clearly, the Government may not carry out point-to-point labour transport for long. But other actors may use this as an opportunity to flourish. Commercial labour intermediaries, ranging from individual gangmasters to large labour dispatchment corporations, are explicitly encouraged by the government in the resumption of mobility. Guangdong province in south China promises to reward an intermediary US$25 for recruiting a worker, and US$700 for organizing an online job fair that attracts over 300 corporate participants. Intermediaries that specialize in domestic helpers are singled out as a priority for support: high-performing agencies are given one-time grants of US$30,000-40,000 each.[vii]
In addition to recruiting and managing a flexible labour force, intermediaries are now organizing labour mobility. As mobility becomes a security concern, organizing mobility becomes a new business niche. Domestic workers agencies—estimated to be 750,000 strong nationwide in 2020—receive special support since the securitization of domestic workers’ mobility is regarded particularly important in the battle against the virus. As intermediaries gain an even stronger footing, the securitization of mobility may become the other side of the deepening casualization of work.
Biao Xiang is Professor of Anthropology and a researcher at COMPAS, Oxford; he thanks Jiaying Tu’s assistance with the research.
[i] People’s Daily. “Let migrant workers return to work smoothly and do their jobs contently” 13 April 2020
[ii] Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver, and Jaap de Wilde, 1998. Security: A New Framework for Analysis. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
[iii] Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin. 2001. Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities, and the Urban Condition. London and New York: Routledge.
[iv] Shang Jianhua, deputy director, Poverty Alleviation Office of Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, 7 March 2020, presentation at State Council press conference on the work of guaranteeing “point-to-point” service for the return of migrant workers; http://www.mot.gov.cn/2020wangshangzhibo/yqfk9/
[v] Ministry of Transport, “Notice on Guaranteeing Transport Service for Migrant Workers’ Return to Work” Code: 2020-03068, Transport  No. 56, February 11, 2020
[vi] Zhang Ying, Director, Employment Promotion Department, Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, 7 March 2020, presentation at State Council press conference, ibid.
[vii] Guangdong Provincial Government, 20 February 2020. “Several Policy Measures to Stabilize and Promote Employment in Guangdong Province“