Contact tracing reveals the heartbreaking life of a migrant worker

Beijing migrant workers inequality

Workers climb onto shared bicycles as they exit a skyscraper construction site in Beijing November 26, 2021. Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

After his 19-year-old son went missing in 2020, a Chinese with the surname Yue quit his job as a fishing boatswain and embarked on a search trip across northern China. On the side, he took up all sorts of manual labor to support his wife and a younger son and to pay the medical bills for his ailing parents.

The 43-year-old worked day and night. This month he worked in Beijing on construction sites, restaurants, office buildings, apartment buildings, a garbage collection center and a shopping mall. Over the course of two weeks he played 31 gigs, many of them overnight, and only ate out once.

The migrant worker’s extraordinary plight was inadvertently revealed this week after he tested positive for COVID-19 and his detailed travel itinerary was released, a routine practice by public health officials trying to trace a patient’s possible contacts.

Yue’s hard life came as a shock to many middle-class Chinese, reminding them of an entire class of underprivileged workers who did not enjoy the prosperity brought by China’s economic boom as much as she did.

“This was the first time I cried while reading contact tracing information,” one person wrote on the microblogging site Weibo, where many users have expressed their sympathy and sadness.

For example, on January 10, he worked at a chain restaurant from midnight to 1:45 a.m. and then transferred to another branch at 2 a.m

At 3:00 am, he started to work in an office building in Beijing’s central business district. An hour later he reached an industrial area on the outskirts of the city, 20 kilometers away. At 9:00 a.m., he went to work at a mansion.

Many Chinese have expressed frustration at the staggering inequality in China in recent years. Decades of economic growth has turned around China the billionaire capital of the world but many others had difficulty accessing basic social services. Today, more than 40 percent of China’s population lives on a monthly income of 1,000 yuan (US$140).

China’s COVID-19 contact tracing has uncovered this divide by revealing snapshots of people’s lives, including their work, leisure and spending habits. Netizens have compared Yue’s life to that of another Beijing resident who had tested positive for the virus a few days earlier.

As Yue hopped from one gig to another, this person would visit luxury fashion stores, fancy restaurants, a coffee shop, and dessert shops. They — authorities did not identify their gender — also attended a stand-up comedy show, went to a ski resort, got permed hair and drove a private car to work every weekday morning.

However, some have also criticized the public scrutiny of ordinary people’s lives under China’s COVID-19 control program, calling it a frightening state intrusion into citizens’ privacy. For the past two years, patients have suffered from doxxing and online abuse after their visits to bars and malls were made public without their consent.

“Whether shopping during the day or working at night, it should be private information,” wrote one Weibo user. “They become topics of public discussion without engaging.”

In Chinese cities, rural migrant workers take essential, low-paying jobs, such as grocery delivery and construction work, but are denied residency privileges and social assistance exclusively for urban households. The Beijing government launched a mass campaign in 2017 to evict so-called “low-end population” – migrants from perceived illegal housing, prompting public outrage.

in a (n Interview with China News Weekly, Yue said he found jobs at a WeChat group. Most construction gigs happened late at night because the capital didn’t allow big trucks during the day. Yue said he ate breakfast from employers and made his own lunch in his 10-square-meter house.

The work he did involved carrying bags of concrete or sand up stairs, he said. Payment started at 1 Chinese yuan (16 cents) per bag weighing 30 to 50 kilograms, and he was paid an extra yuan for each floor he had to climb. He said he also loaded construction debris onto trucks.

Due to the positive test result from Yue, the migrant worker district he was alive was sealed off.

Now isolated in a Beijing hospital, Yue said he was there Shanghai, a type of petition system that allows people to turn to top governments if they feel mistreated by local cadres.

Originally from Weihai, a coastal city in eastern Shandong Province, Yue traveled through several nearby provinces in search of his son, who suddenly found himself incommunicado while working at a food factory, Yue said China News Weekly.

His younger son is in elementary school. His wife takes care of the child and earns about $1,600 a year drying seaweed. Both parents suffer from chronic diseases. His father, 76, is paralyzed while his mother, 66, recently broke her arm.

Yue said police in his hometown of Rongcheng refused to help locate his missing son, who he believed was the victim of a scam. After he began appealing, the police told him they had found a body that belonged to his son. Yue said the body did not belong to his son.

After Yue’s story went viral on Thursday, netizens posted thousands of angry comments on the Weibo pages of police departments in his home province of Shandong. The Rongcheng police told the news agency that they are still investigating the case.

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