Migrant workers Liu Mei and her husband, Chu Yangjian, were told by their employers to start their holidays earlier this year in order to take the 12-hour journey to their hometown for the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday.
However, the offer was not such good news for the couple; they were allowed to head off to Hunan province only because the factory where they work for has seen a drop in orders and production.
Yet they were not alone. The shadow of an economic downturn was looming over many migrant workers waiting at Foshan city train station in Guangdong on Monday, one of the coldest days on record in the province.
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“Business wasn’t good this year,” said Liu, 38, who works with her husband at a furniture factory in Foshan. “There was an obvious drop in our workload and our salary payments got delayed by two months. Many of us were allowed to start our holidays early.”
Still, the couple are eager to see their children, whom they are able to see only once a year.
The couple’s children, aged 9 and 14, live in the family’s hometown in Xinhua county and are among the tens of millions of so-called “left behind children” in China.
“I miss them everyday but what can we do?” Liu said. “It’s difficult to find jobs in Xinhua.”
Another migrant workers couple in Foshan, Luo Cheng and his wife, also started their Lunar New Year holiday a week earlier than in previous years.
They said they believed it was because the shoe factory where they work and live has had fewer orders this year and the company wanted to cut down on staff salaries by sending them home earlier.
The couple from Hunan province, struggling carrying six huge sacks between them, said they were eager to start their eight-hour train ride home despite the uncertainty over the future of their jobs.
“We have a 12-year-old son who is living at home with our parents, who are in their 60s,” Luo, 40, told the South China Morning Post as he rushed off to board his train. “The long ride home is tough, but it’s worth it.”
However, some workers longing to go home were not lucky enough to start their journeys.
A notice posted at Foshan train station announced the cancellation of nine trains on Saturday, eight, on Sunday and five on Monday because of “strong winds” caused by the polar vortex, which has brought unusually cold weather to much of the country.
Liu Jianyun, 32, was one of the unlucky migrant workers whose train to Hengyang city, in Hunan province, was cancelled.
He has been working at a metal factory in Foshan for 11 years and had to wait in line at the station for six hour to get a refund and arrange a new ticket for another trip.
His wife and their six-year-old daughter back home in Hengyang have been waiting eagerly for his once-a-year return.
Liu said he was frustrated about the enforced delay and also criticised the railway company for cancelling the train.
The annual Lunar New Year holiday, which this year begins on February 8, is one of the most important traditional holidays for family reunions.
Millions of migrant workers travel back to their home towns each year for the holiday – using trains, buses, cars, and motorcycles – with homebound journeys usually starting from 15 days before and return trips finishing about 25 days after the festival.