China’s primary sector workforce sees first increase in decades as migrants back on the farm

by Luna Sun at

Both the number and share of workers employed in China’s primary industries rose for the first time in two decades in 2022 – a trend that may continue, analysts said, absent a solid recovery in the manufacturing and services sectors.

About 176.6 million people – 24.1 per cent of the nation’s total employed – were engaged in agriculture, fishing, forestry, mining and other activities involving the extraction of natural resources in 2022, according to the 2023 China Population and Employment Statistical Yearbook. The data compendium was recently published by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

The same numbers stood at 170.7 million and 22.9 per cent in 2021.

The number of employed people in the sector started to fall in 2003, and their proportion has been in steady decline since 1999.

Experts said the rise may reflect a return of migrant workers to their rural hometowns amid strict pandemic controls and a bleak urban job market in 2022, and it may continue if other sectors do not compensate with a return to sustained growth.

“It [shows] urban services sectors, as well as small and medium enterprises, both major job creators, have shrunk gravely,” said Wang Dan, chief economist at Hang Seng Bank China.

The trend might endure in the near-term, she said, as slashed household consumption continues to cripple the service sector and manufacturing is unable to absorb surplus labour.

“Migrant workers might come back to cities when services recover, but the timeline is unknown,” Wang added.