Day Laborers: Going it Alone

Millions of China’s most vulnerable lack even the most basic means to save for their children’s education, make purchases on credit, protect their homes through insurance, and send and receive money. Financial exclusion prevents many of them from realizing their potential and improving their livelihoods.

In the run-up to the February 11 launch of our latest publication, Embracing Informality: Designing Financial Services for China’s Marginalized , we’d like to feature some of their stories.


The drivers don’t even need to honk.

As the boxy, well-worn Mitsubishi Delica vans arrive, the workers we’ve been interviewing hightail it to the curb of the sprawling, six-lane highway outside the Guiyang labor market. Doors slide open and brusque bosses pop their heads out, shouting day rates and specific jobs as men jockey to get in their vans.

A minute later, the vans are gone. Most of the workers remain, disappointed. They continue to mill about, but as the clock ticks, they grow increasingly worried about their ability to earn a wage that day.

Nearby, a labor headhunter sits beside a placard of jobs listings, offering to refer any worker to a paying job—for a small fee. One man tells us he’s been burned too many times by shady laobans to trust agents like this. He describes being driven out to a far-off work site, working a full day without food, and then being sent away without pay.

With no official labor agreement, he had no recourse.

Another man tells us the labor agent is just as bad as the laobans, claiming that he charges to provide a phone number that is a lead to a job, but that when the buyer of the number calls, all the jobs are always taken.

Yet another chimes in, saying that he’s been duped by the agents in the past. He’s called the numbers given and been directed to a job site, only to arrive and find no one there and the number he paid for since disconnected.

Resources for these men are scant. Some say the time they spend looking for work and hounding managers for the pay that they are owed, outweigh that which they spend actually working and earning wages.

Even legitimate companies can be risky.

“We don’t like working for construction companies because it is very difficult to receive your wages from them. Either the accountant is not available or the manager is nowhere to be found. And you can’t put up too much of a fight—you never know what kind of black society [gangs] they have backing them up.”

Editor’s Note: This profile is a composite of real people who shared their stories with us. Though the profile takes pieces from different individuals’ lives, the goal was to develop individual stories that are representative of a broader group.

Futher reading.