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Pure fluff

Cotton pickers from neighboring provinces start arriving in Xinjiang from mid-September to help harvest the crop. (Photo by Polat Niyaz/China Daily)

Publication Date : 14-10-2012


The sun is sweltering and rows of cotton pickers are bent over in the fields, carefully plucking cotton from the prickly bolls. Among them is Wang Aihong, who, for more than a month, has spent 13 hours a day picking cotton. It is early autumn in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. There is a bumper harvest this year for cotton farmers, which means a lot of backbreaking work for cotton pickers like Wang. But the 40-year-old, who has traveled more than 3,000 kilometres from Liangshan county in eastern Shandong province, is happy. "This is good money for me, as much as I can make," Wang says.

Cotton pickers like her in the outskirts of Xinjiang's Hutubi county, not far from the regional capital Urumqi, can get 1.8 yuan for every kilogram of cotton they pick.

Wang, who also worked here last year, has returned accompanied by more than 20 fellow villagers this time. They will each pick more than 100 kg a day in the 133-hectare cotton field.

That means each worker can earn at least 8,000 yuan (US$1,270) in about 70 days during the cotton-picking season.

That is a lot of money for Wang's family, whose annual income from fieldwork and odd jobs come up to less than 10,000 yuan.

Wang is among more than 1 million workers who have been heading to Xinjiang every year for the past decade to pick cotton. Xinjiang is expected to yield about 3.2 million tons of cotton this year, accounting for half of the national output, figures from the regional authorities show.

But the situation is unlikely to continue for long. In fact, many say the sector has reached a turning point.

"The first time I heard of the throngs of cotton pickers coming to Xinjiang from the inland provinces was in 2000. We were talking about 1.5 to 2 million cotton pickers then, but this year I heard there has been a sharp drop in the number of pickers because cotton-picking machines have become more popular," says Hu Zhaoguang, 58, owner of the field where Wang works.

The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, also known as Bingtuan, a unique economic and semi-military governmental organization, estimated that the region needs a total of 700,000 cotton pickers this year.

The XPCC itself needs about 250,000 pickers. The corresponding figure for last year was 370,000.

Hu says he, too, favours using machines to pick cotton because it is cheaper. He hired the workers this year for the harvest because Hutubi county has yet to regulate the use of machine-picked cotton. In Xinjiang, authorities buy most of the cotton stocks at prices that help protect the interests of growers.

But nearby, Regiment 143 of Agriculture Division 8 under the XPCC plans to have 98 per cent of its 6,666 hectares of cotton fields harvested by machines this year.

To help make the transition, the cotton this year has been planted with spacing to make the crop easier to harvest by machines.

"All the 40 mu (2.67 hectare) of cotton fields I take care of are picked by machines. That saves me more than 200 yuan per mu," says Yue Xinli, an employee of the division.

One cotton-picking machine can usually handle the workload of 500 cotton workers. It can even replace 1,000 human pickers during peak times.

The XPCC, which grows about 506,000 hectares of the 1.65 million hectares of cotton fields in Xinjiang, can harvest 333,333 hectares of cotton using machines. Using the machines is expected to save up to 1 billion yuan this year, the XPCC says on its website.

But Lang Yongqi, who grows 18.9 hectares of cotton fields for Hu Zhaoguang, says the quality of machine-picked cotton can "by no means be compared to those picked by hand".

"Cotton picked by the hand is very clean. Those picked by machines is dirty, mixed with many impurities that degrades the cotton. The machines can save labor costs initially, but more people have to be employed later to clean up the stock," Lang says.

Still, improving technology is addressing these concerns. Regiment 143 invested 38 million yuan this year to upgrade its production line, improving the quality of ginned cotton significantly, the XPCC says.

For the moment, cotton pickers are still highly valued among many cotton growers scattered in the vast Xinjiang region. As of September 20, nearly 300,000 pickers have made the trip to Xinjiang, with more to come in the following days, local authorities report.

But it's still not enough for smaller farmers like Zhang Yanhong from Bole city in northwest Xinjiang. He has been recruiting cotton pickers for more than one week at a railway station in Urumqi - the most popular way for small-sized farms to find labor during cotton-picking days.

"It's hard to find pickers here this year, as most of the farmers have come with contracts. The pickers are also asking for too much, usually above 2.2 yuan per kilo. We cannot afford that. And they would rather wait for ones who can afford them."

Under XPCC guidelines this year, the rate for cotton pickers has been set at 1.7 yuan per kg of cotton. Xinjiang's Development and Reform Commission on September 24 put the reference price for unginned cotton at 8.46 yuan per kg.

The Agriculture Division 13 in Hami prefecture in east Xinjiang has also arranged two special trains to send more than 3,000 pickers from Qi county, in Central China's Henan province. The division has set up cooperation programmes with Henan, Ningxia Hui autonomous region and Chongqing municipality. Its cooperation with Qi county started nine years ago.

"This is the largest such program in our division's history," says Li Xinwen, director of the division's job centre.

Under the programme, many cotton pickers experienced what was possibly their first police escort when they traveled to the farms as part of transport security. The Urumqi Railway Bureau says more than 100 such trains have arrived in Xinjiang from various areas since mid September, arranged by the XPCC and some local governments.

Li Jianjun, head of the Department of Social Labor Management under the XPCC's Social Security Bureau, says all the pickers employed by the XPCC have contracts to ensure their interests and security.

The XPCC also made special arrangements this year to provide mooncakes and fruits for the pickers far away from home during the major Mid-Autumn Festival, which fell on September 30 this year. Some farms have also purchased insurance for their pickers.

Li says the XPCC will arrange a total of 95 special trains for the cotton pickers after the harvest season so they reach home safe and sound.
Some local governments in Xinjiang also reached out to other provinces during spring to ensure that their cotton growers can have enough workers in autumn. To attract the pickers, they set up 24-hour reception centers every day for the workers, issuing guidelines for prices and ensuring that employers do not delay wages or cheat the workers.

Hu Zhaoguang says he booked 60 cotton pickers through connections from Shandong and 70 others from Mianyang, Sichuan province, before the cotton-picking season started.

"The usual payment is 2.2 yuan per kilo now. The wage I give is 1.8 yuan because I covered all their travelling costs. And I provide the pickers with good accommodation," he says.

"The cotton pickers are very picky now, they avoid bad bosses," Lang Yongqi says.

Cotton picker Wang Aihong from Shandong says life is pretty good out in the cotton fields. "The workload is not too strong and we can get good food, TV and hot water 24 hours a day."

She says cotton picking in Xinjiang has changed her life. "Before I first came here last year, I never realised that a woman like me could earn so much in just two months."

She makes the maximum use of her time here, spending every available second picking cotton "as if I am picking up gold".

Wang says she has also heard of the increasing use of machines this year. "But I believe Xinjiang still needs cotton pickers," she says.

The XPCC's Agriculture Bureau said earlier this year that although it will have more cotton picked by machines, it will set aside 20 per cent of the fields for hand-picked cotton to help ensure the quality of their output.

"Even if I cannot get the work afterward, it is still a good experience for me. Before coming to Xinjiang I never got out of my county but now I can tell my future grandson about this faraway place," Wang says, adding that her biggest regret here is that she cannot go around in Urumqi for fear of "getting lost".

Hu Zhaoguang says there are also other areas similar to the cotton fields of Xinjiang. "I heard that some farmers I employed last year are also going to Gansu province to pick medlar (wolfberries).

Opportunities always change with time; in the 1980s people worked in factories in the coastal areas of Southeast China and now they are going back home.

"At least the experience in Xinjiang can continue to inspire people with such opportunities."


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