Job discrimination against recovered COVID patients leaves migrant workers homeless in Shanghai

Society & Culture

An increasing number of migrant workers in Shanghai are falling through the cracks due to discriminatory labor practices against job seekers with a history of COVID-19. Their invisible hardship is the subject of a viral article that has sparked outrage on Chinese social media.

Migrant workers in Shanghai. Oriental Image via Reuters Connect.

After facing countless rejections from employers who don’t consider recovered COVID-19 patients, hundreds of thousands of jobless migrant workers in Shanghai have taken up residence at public locations as the lack of income has impacted their ability to afford food and rent, pushing some out of their homes. Their struggles — and Shanghai’s failure to help them back on their feet  — have been brought into focus by a Shanghai-based blogger who documented their plight in an article that went viral today.

Titled “I hide at a restroom in Hongqiao, don’t know where to go,” the story (in Chinese), published on July 11 on the author’s WeChat blog, is mainly told through the perspective of a woman calls herself Āfēn 阿芬. The author, who goes by the name Zhēnjiào Lújùn 真叫卢俊 on the internet, wrote that his first encounter with Afen came last week when he was looking for a bathroom on his way to work. 

“I can’t recall when this exactly started but one day I began to notice that people were spending nights at the [Hongqiao railway] station,” he wrote, adding that he initially thought they were just trying to save on accommodation before catching trains the next day. “But as everything slowly goes back to normal, the situation only gets worse.”

According to Afen, she moved to Shanghai in March in search of employment, only days before the city went into a two-month lockdown that saw almost all businesses come to a halt. Unable to work, Afen’s savings quickly dried up, and she ended up at a local shelter for unhoused people. In May, she caught COVID at the shelter, and had to spend nearly a month at an official quarantine facility. 

After being released, Afen has not been able to find work as many employers are restricting recovered COVID patients from applying for positions. Numerous rejections eventually led her to live at the Hongqiao railway station, one of the major transportation hubs in the city. There she is living in a bathroom stall and scraping by on cheap food and free wifi. 

“No history of being positive”

Afen isn’t the only migrant worker forced to improvise amid the circumstances. The author notes that since Shanghai lifted lockdown restrictions in June, the railway station and nearby indoor places like shopping malls have been clearing out people like Afen, forcing them to resort to sleeping on pedestrian overpasses. “I sat at the railway station at midnight one day and someone asked me to leave within half an hour,” he mentioned. 

“Afen’s case is not unique. Many of the migrant workers she met at the station are facing the same situation. This is a massive group of people who basically make up the entire workforce of the service industry in Shanghai,” the author said. In a string of recruitment posts that Afen showed to the author, companies in industries like manufacturing and hospitality — which typically rely on migrant workers to fill jobs — specify that they only consider individuals with “no history of being [COVID] positive” (历史无阳 lìshǐwúyáng). 

“Some of them manage to find work on a day-to-day basis for logistics companies, food-delivery platforms, and warehouses. But the only way to do that is by concealing their history of COVID infection” the blogger says, writing that he was concerned about these migrant workers’ health and safety as a heat wave scorched Shanghai in the past few days.

After the story went up on Monday, Chinese social media users — especially those that are in Shanghai — were quick to empathize with Afen’s hardship and called for an end to discriminatory hiring practices targeting recovered COVID patients. “Looks like it’s not the virus that’s making life miserable for some people. We are facing a human problem,” a Weibo user commented (in Chinese). 

Others questioned the legal and scientific grounds for the discriminatory requriement. Many pointed out that it’s illegal for employers to turn away job applicants because of infectious diseases under Chinese labor laws, while others said the phenomenon was a result of China’s big data COVID-19 monitoring, which they said was a violation of people’s privacy and emboldened companies to ask for migrant workers’ medical information when hiring. 

In response to the criticism, Shanghai government spokesperson Yǐn Xīn 尹欣 stressed (in Chinese) at a COVID briefing this afternoon that local government departments and companies should “treat recovered COVID patients equally and fairly.” But no specific policies or measures addressing the mistreatment of migrant workers have been announced. 

For many in Shanghai, Afen’s story reminded them of the woman who went viral in May for living in a telephone booth for a month as the majority of the metropolis’ 26 million residents were ordered to stay indoors. The woman, a migrant worker in her 50s, reportedly resorted to the unusual living arrangement after having difficulty securing a job amid the lockdown. 

Comprising a third of China’s workforce, migrant workers have been disproportionately affected  by lockdowns across the country because they are highly dependent on their employers. Usually hired as temporary workers with little job security and meager labor protections, many migrant workers were let go without severance or financial compensation when businesses were ordered to close. In the past few years, stories like Afen’s and the phone booth woman’s have prompted calls for authorities to provide a lifeline for unemployed migrant workers and better protect their labor rights.