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Jobless migrants flood back to China's villages

January 19, 2009

BEIYA VILLAGE, China (AP) For Chen Xiaohong, the global economic crisis started with unsold portable DVD players.

"The factory just couldn't move the merchandise. It sat there for three months. They said it was because of the financial crisis," said Chen, a slight 37-year-old in a navy suit with the trouser legs rolled up to keep the hems out of the mud.

Chen, his wife and a half-dozen relatives worked at the factory on China's southern coast. Now they're all back in their rural village home earlier than expected for the country's biggest holiday, the Lunar New Year, with plenty of time on their hands.

Slumping global demand has forced Chen and tens of millions of other rural migrants who power China's factories into an early vacation, sending them back to their villages and turning what is usually a festive break from grinding work into a period of gnawing uncertainty. Many don't know whether their factories will reopen and where else they can find work.

Chen's village of Beiya in southwestern China's Sichuan province escaped largely unscathed from May's 7.9-magnitude earthquake, but the misty mountain region has little land and few opportunities beyond farming small plots of rice, corn, sweet potatoes and leafy greens.

"If we don't go out to work, we can't make much money and we don't have any way to live," said Chen, whose farmland measures just one-twentieth of an acre. "Besides farming, there's nothing."

The migrants' homecoming is flooding villages where wrinkled grandparents and ruddy-faced schoolchildren are the only residents for most of the year. The masses of unemployed and underemployed pose a major challenge for the Chinese government, which must cope with sinking economic growth while calming vast swaths of countryside that have grown used to large transfers of money from migrants working in factories and construction jobs in urban areas.

Migrant workers have an average annual income of about 8,000 yuan ($1,170), while farmers make about 4,800 ($700), said Zhang Jianping, an economist at Minzu University of China. Research from the People's Bank of China says migrant workers contribute 65 percent of their rural family's income.

China has an estimated 150 million rural migrants. In Yilong County, where Beiya is located, more than a quarter of its 1.08 million residents migrate off the farm to find work, according to the local labor bureau.

Migrant laborers are likely to be patient about their troubled job prospects, Zhang and other economists said.

"When the manufacturing industry is under crisis, peasants go back to farming. The countryside is a pool of human resources and when the economy booms, these people will go back to city again," Zhang said.

Still, the effects of the global economic crisis are unfolding across the country just ahead of the Jan. 26 New Year, the most important holiday in China and a boost to consumer spending akin to Christmas in the West.

The season marks the largest human migration on Earth, when 188 million people many of them rural workers squeeze onto trains to make it home for the "reunion meal."

There was no rush, however, for Song Guiying, a 19-year-old whose job working 24-hour shifts every other day at a bag factory on the east coast abruptly ended in November when the manager told her there was no more work. She has been passing time by watching TV and hanging out with friends, and is not sure when work will start again.

"When we left, the boss didn't know either," said Song, wearing a puffy gold coat and standing outside a bus station. "He said, 'You're on vacation now.' ... We weren't prepared for that at all."

Despite having less to spend on goodies like clothes, sweets and fruit, signs of the holiday are everywhere in Yilong County. Workers strung red lanterns along the streets of the county seat, while groups of locals walked along winding mountain roads with New Year's purchases of woks, plastic washbasins and neatly folded cotton quilts.

For Chen, the electronics factory worker, the furlough is his first New Year holiday at home in six years. When his factory hit difficult times, Chen's income dropped from 2,200 yuan ($320) in October to 1,500 ($220) in November. By last month, overtime had dwindled to nearly nothing and many were making only the base salary of 29 yuan ($4.25) for an eight-hour shift.

Chen said he was happy to come home to spend time with his aged parents, who look after his 15-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter most of the year.

"All I think is, I don't worry when I'm by my parents' side," he said. "This year, I said I should come home and see my parents ... to reunite with them and celebrate the New Year."

His 20-year-old nephew had a different take.

"Of course I'm happy to be home, but then you think about how hard it is going to be to find work next year. It's not a good situation," said Chen Jie, who has long fingernails like a girl, which among China's working class symbolizes a successful escape from farm labor.

The unrelated Chen Qiqing, a 35-year-old who worked 10 years at a Taiwanese-owned shoe factory until it folded, is now considering rabbit farming as a way to stay home and look after her fifth-grade daughter.

"I want to have a little business for myself at home. I don't want to 'go out' anymore," Chen Qiqing said, using migrant worker slang that means leaving the village.

She was among 50 people at a recent government class on rabbit farming, held in an unheated school room in Erxinqiao Village. She plans to invest 20,000 yuan ($2,900), about half of it borrowed, to start her venture.

"I hope to earn that back in a year," she said, laughing. "It's not wrong to think that, right?"

She Shucheng, director of the Yilong County Labor Development Office, has noticed more people attending training courses, which also teach farmers how to raise silkworms for profit.

"They hope to come back and learn a new skill, find a new career that they can have here. So they don't have to go out and work, they can stay in their home village and take care of their parents and children," She said.

Most of Yilong's residents work in construction and may fare better than factory workers because Beijing has pledged to pour money into infrastructure to stimulate the economy. But those like Chen Xiaohong are left fretting about, for example, how to find enough money to repair or rebuild his farmhouse whose walls cracked in the May earthquake.

"Sometimes in a year, we can only save a little more than 10,000 yuan ($1,460). We can't save that much because we need to smoke, or play mahjong every now and then, or have a drink with friends every three or four months," he said, watching buses full of migrants pass on the two-lane highway in front of his brother's farmhouse.

Chen is asking around about job openings. He's heard of construction work in the western city of Xi'an, where he might find a job in bricklaying or carpentry with his shy, pink-cheeked wife.

"She can pass boards to me. I'll work in the building and she'll be on the ground. We'll work together," he said. "We're not sure where we should go. Wherever there's work, that's where I'll go. Where there's money to be made, that's where I'll go."

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