One-Way Ticket to Prosperity
Transitions from farm to factory help to reduce poverty in south Xinjiang
By Li Fangfang  ·  2017-12-01  ·   Source: | NO. 49 DECEMBER 7, 2017

Workers at Hongyang Knitting Company, one of the 25 enterprises operating in Qiuci Small and Micro Enterprises Pioneering Park in Kuqa County, northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XINHUA)

Uygur women in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, northwest China, are well known across the nation for their long braided hair and dancing talent. Raziya Kadir, though, deviates from the stereotype by virtue of her short hair, and her appearance often gives people the impression that she has a somewhat self-willed disposition. So, the major life change she made several months ago came as a surprise, even to her mother.

Thirty-something Kadir, who trained in judo at Kashgar Sports School, looks young for her age, possibly because she never really had any ambitions or plans for her career and life. She was used to just hanging out with friends around her home in little Bachu County in Kashgar Prefecture, southwest Xinjiang, which made her mom worry about her future.

One day, Kadir heard that the local government was encouraging people out of work to take up jobs in Korla, a city some 12 hours by train from Bachu. Fed up with her mom's nagging, she considered for the first time working away from home.

After Kadir made up her mind to give it a try, some of her friends didn't understand why she wanted to give up a comfortable life at home to be a migrant worker elsewhere in the region. Her mother, though, was not one of them.

"I was surprised that my mother fully supported my decision. After all, it's so far from home," she told Beijing Review.

Raziya Kadir at Korla Ecomonic & Technological Development Zone (LI FANGFANG)

She said that local people prefer to stay in their hometown rather than move to other places. Therefore, offering them jobs within the region is a practical way to bring them out of poverty.

Skirting the Taklimakan Desert, Xinjiang's southern areas, home to 90 percent of Xinjiang's Uygurs, are extremely arid, which contributes to poverty in the region.

In the past three years, 4.92 million underemployed people have been transferred from farming to factory work in south Xinjiang, thanks to many employment campaigns aimed at attracting enterprises from other provinces, through policy incentives including financial aid, to take on such new recruits.

In 2017, some local enterprises, mostly state-owned ones, were also required by the regional government to offer more than 10,000 jobs targeting workers from Kashgar and Hotan prefectures. As one of the beneficiaries of this policy, Kadir was hired by Xinjiang Zhongtai Chemical Co. Ltd.

Commencing her new life at Korla Economic & Technological Development Zone in April, Kadir underwent three months of training in technical procedures, rules and language before starting work in the factory. That her single room in a dormitory provided by the company is fully equipped with domestic appliances was beyond her expectations.

Now, the opportunity to create a better life is Kadir's primary motivation. "I want to earn more money and bring my mother here soon to live with me," she remarked.

Hengyao employees are allowed to bring their children to the factory, which also provides daycare facilities (CUI NAN)

From land to factory

Asiyam Matniyaz, 25, relocated to Aksu Textile Industrial Park together with another 79 villagers under an employment campaign to transfer surplus rural labor to factories in Aksu Prefecture in 2015.

Previously, she had never considered leaving her family to work far away. But, her new situation was such that, even after a long break to handle some family affairs, she returned to the factory. During her second stint she was promoted to the position of team leader due to her comparatively good work performance and Mandarin language abilities.

"Locals have deep connections to their homeland, therefore, it is impossible for them to look for job opportunities outside [the region]," Liu Yong, Director of Aksu Textile Industrial Park, told Beijing Review.

The park, established in 2010, has so far attracted 78 companies from elsewhere in China, including Matniyaz's employer, Kening Textile Technology Co. Ltd. "Since most of our products are exported to countries in Central Asia, it's more convenient here in terms of transportation. Meanwhile, it's easier to hire workers here than in Zhejiang Province," said He Xingjun, Vice President of Kening.

Companies that invested in the industrial park depend solely on the Aksu prefecture government to hire workers, mainly farmers scattered throughout different counties. The local government's human resources department is responsible for collecting companies' requirements and hiring and training villagers until they are qualified to work in factories.

To enable locals to make the transition from farmers to workers, "the training priority is not technical skills, but the way of thinking," Liu said. "In the past they managed themselves but now they need to obey the factories' rules." Many are eager to learn Mandarin in order to better communicate with Han people in the companies.

Matniyaz has never regretted her decision to change lifestyles from farm to factory worker. She and her husband now enjoy a combined income of more than 5,000 yuan ($758) per month, equal to half the annual income of her family previously.

Currently, the newly married couple is planning to buy an apartment.

"Having seen neighbors leaving the village and living a better life, more and more villagers would like to try the different lifestyle," Liu said. "That's the change of thinking."

Embroiderers working at Hengyao Garments Company in Kuqa (CUI NAN)

Women's power

Among the people who've made the transition from land to factory, a majority are women, who are able to adapt quickly to new situations and changes. However, as most married women shoulder the greater share of domestic responsibilities, particularly care for the elderly and children, it would be much better if they could work close to home.

Rural laborers located near industrial parks such as the one in Aksu may be able to strike a reasonable work-family balance after taking up factory work, but those living much further afield face the dilemma of whether to sacrifice family life or the opportunity to substantially improve their life condition.

Fortunately, 32-year-old Tohtam Sawux did not have to make such a difficult choice. After Wuqia Town Innovation Park was set up in her home county of Kuqa—some 250 km from Aksu—in 2016, she managed to find a job there as a seamstress—her preferred occupation—which enabled her to stay with her family and continue to look after her son.

She used to do sewing work at home, while her husband looked after 6 acres of land and some livestock, but this far from guaranteed a stable income. Then in 2016, she got a job at Hengyao Garments Co. with a monthly salary of 3,000 yuan ($452), which has enabled the family to escape poverty.

"We really like spending the money we make ourselves, which increases our [sense of] personal worth," Sawux told Beijing Review.

Hengyao Garments, one of five companies moved to the innovation park in 2016, had provided 2,000 jobs for local women as of September 2017, making products that are exported mainly to Europe and Central Asia.

"We enjoy lots of government incentives, such as lower costs of raw materials and transportation," said Ouyang Zhijun, Hengyao's founder, adding that he was surprised to find that managing factories in the region was not as difficult as he had imagined.

Hengyao provides training not only for its employees, but also for women who are currently not hired.

And as more and more local women discover the benefits the new economic opportunity brings, they start to consider the value of their personal contributions to their family and society.

Compared to working at home part time, Sawux prefers her factory job, as she can focus on work without distractions. She has decided to put aside her own dreams for further study until her son goes to university.

Patigvl Mamat, another Hengyao employee, would like to continue to study Suzhou embroidery, which is listed as part of China's intangible cultural heritage. She had an opportunity to study the craft in Suzhou, east China's Jiangsu Province, in 2015 and has since passed on her newfound knowledge to several dozen coworkers.

"I really love embroidery, and I want to continuously improve my skills," Mamat said.

The study experience in Suzhou enabled her to see the differences between Suzhou embroidery and Uygur embroidery. "The Su embroidery is more delicate than the Uygur cross-stitch. Their pins and materials are both better than ours," Mamat added. She now often mixes the two styles in single pieces of her work, which sell for up to 8,000 yuan ($1,206) a piece.

"I have so much to learn. My best wish for now is to keep studying and improving my skills," Mamat said.

(Reporting from Aksu, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region)

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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