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The cutting edge of capitalism: The Itinerant Worker

'GO SOUTH young man,' is the best advice these days for China's rural poor and under-employed. The 20-year old working on the Shenzhen building site was from Hunan, an inland province. Back at home, he said from the top of his ladder, he could earn 200 yuan (pounds 17) a month in a factory. Here, on the site, it was about 700 yuan.

He came to Shenzhen alone, but now shares a rented flat with 12 other migrant workers. It had been easy to find work, and he said he had a permit. He had been in Shenzhen three months, and did not know how long he would stay.

This man is part of China's huge rural floating population. No one is sure how many people leave their homes in search of jobs, but estimates run to around 90 million. It is a welcome freedom that did not exist before the reforms, because strict local party control and the need for food coupons used to keep people tied to their local work units. But it is also symptomatic of serious underemployment and poverty in inland rural areas which have fallen behind as coastal areas have grown rich.

In every big city nowadays, the newly-arrived labourers can be spotted walking the streets looking for work. Dressed in simple clothes, often carrying carpentry or building tools, they cluster around train and bus stations or in new shanty towns.

The government's payment of worthless white IOUs to farmers for their crops has created resentment and hardship back at home. Sending a family member away to look for work should help; except that when they send money home through the post office remittance system, the families are presented with green IOUs at the post office.

In Shenzhen there are 800,000 permanent residents, 1.8 million non-permanent workers on year-long permits, and an undocumented number of floating workers who turn up with temporary permits and then stay on. At the moment, there is plenty of work. But any downturn in the property business may start to see building sites close, and jobs become more scarce.

(Photograph omitted)