Source: Global Times [07:57 July 20 2009]A rural migrant-worker program in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region aims to alleviate poverty and benefit the ethnic minorities culturally, as part of a broader employment stimulus plan in the region, government officials have told the Global Times.
The program in the country's northwestern region is well underway, with demand for migrant workers remaining high, officials said, despite the bloody riots of July 5.
A brawl between Han and Uygur workers at a toy factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province, on June 26, was used as an excuse by overseas separatists to start the riot in Urumqi that left 197 people dead and more than 1,600 injured.
"Labor service export is a correct policy for Xinjiang. It has functioned as a major means of poverty reduction. Through the program, migrant workers have opportunities to access new ideas," said Huang Yu, deputy director of the Xinjiang Department of Human Resources and Social Security, in an interview with the Global Times.
More than 96,000 people from Kashgar, Hotan and the Kizilsu Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture in southern Xinjiang, most of whom are Uygurs, participated in the program during the first half of 2009 and were offered jobs at factories in the coastal areas, according to a copy of the bureau's statement obtained by the Global Times.
The average minimum income in Xinjiang is around 540 yuan per month, with Kashgar and Hotan among the least developed areas in the region, official data shows.
"For those Uygurs who leave their homeland for coastal regions, they can find better-paying jobs to enrich their lifestyles," said Xiong Kunxin, a professor of ethnic policy studies at Minzu University of China.
"What's more, their communications with various ethnic groups in other regions can make them more open-minded, which is definitely good for their personal development," he said.
Some Uygurs, however, hesitated at first when authorities activated the program in 2002. Linguistic and religious differences are the most-cited reasons why many cast doubt on whether the Turkic-speaking youths would be able to handle life in places such as Guangdong, Zhejiang and Shandong provinces, thousands of miles away from home.
Tutitur, 57, a father of three children and a villager from Jiashi county, southern Xinjiang, was among those who were doubtful but later made an attitude shift.
One hundred female Uygur workers from Jiashi county went to work in a toy factory in Zhengjiang in March 2006, the first dispatch of female workers from Xinjiang.
As well as remarkable economic gains – contracts mean two- or even three-fold income increases for the Uygur workers, with an average wage of 850 yuan ($125) in factories – free vocational and Putonghua training were also given to those who signed up for the program.
Aiyilati, Tutitur's eldest daughter, decided not to continue her schooling even though she had been admitted by the best senior high school in the county in 2005. Living on a tight budget, Aiyilati dropped out of school and thereafter began to work the land.
It was not until a year later that Tutitur realized that choices may not have been exhausted, as local authorities started to recruit females for manufacturing jobs in Tianjin city.
"My daughter wanted to be in the program. I haven't heard of any compulsory signing-up," Tutitur said.
A report in the Washington Post on July 15 said that Uygur rural women in Kashgar were forced to go east to work to avoid their families receiving hefty fines imposed by local governments.
"People eligible are free to join the plan. Nobody was forced to sign up. It's not mandatory," said Wu Yunhua, an official who oversees the program in Xinjiang with the Human Resource and Social Security Department.
About 100,000 people of different ethnic groups leave Xinjiang for city jobs every year, said Nur Bekri, chairman of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Regional Government.
It costs the regional government 300 million ($43 million) to 400 million yuan ($58 million) to provide these free courses, he said.
"The local labor departments consult the parents of young people wanting to do migrant jobs," Bekri said, adding that many local governments organized free technology and language training courses to prepare minority peoples for migrant jobs.
Bilingual county officials, members of local school teaching staff, and chefs are designated to accompany the labor team – composed of youths over 17 – throughout the contract year.
"We take good care of ethnic and religious customs," Huang said. "But the organization and management is difficult, as most of these workers were far from qualified to fill the positions at first. Our management system is not perfect either – some officials have to improve their working style."
The labor program, however, has yet to convince Tutitur's wife and some friends, as many questioned whether the plan would be in line with the religious tradition of the Uygurs, who do not encourage unmarried women to be away from home.
"Some of my relatives were really hard on me. They accused me of not being able to raise my daughter. I was constantly reminded that it was probably not the way for a Muslim father to treat his daughter," Tutitur told the Global Times through an interpreter.
Tutitur said his daughter later insisted on being allowed in the program to financially assist the family. With a hard-won nod by Tutitur, his daughter was eventually given a position, after training, in a textile factory in Tianjin.
"It was a hard decision to send their daughters, and even harder for a local religious leader. There are both cultural and communication clashes," said Wang Lijuan, human resources head with the county office.
"But the economic benefit is not all. The labor-export program broadened their horizons, gave them access to modernization," Wang added.
Tutitur said he was overwhelmed by the changes his daughter had undergone after participating in the program and said he had already begun to lobby for the program in his village.
"We hope those young men and women can bring new ideas back to their homes after their contracts expire," said Wang, adding that local public organizations, including medical clinics and kindergartens, would prefer to recruit them after that.