Cotton pickers earn, growers don't

Updated: 2012-01-05 08:14

By Shao Wei (China Daily)

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SHIHEZI, Xinjiang - The cotton growers here suffered a harsh harvest in 2011. Labor costs increased by about 40 percent from 2010, while the price of cotton dropped 22 percent.

Zhang Yurong, a 50-year-old cotton picker from Nanyang, Henan province, earned about 17,000 yuan ($2,690) from her repetitive, arduous work over 75 days at a farm of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps near Shihezi, the main cotton production area of Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

Happily taking her wages, Zhang rode the train to Henan at the end of November "to have a good year-end gathering at home".

"What I gained from Xinjiang is the good pay, and I am quite satisfied with it. But thanks to the painstaking work, I suffer arthritis and lumbar muscle strains," Zhang said recently on the phone.

Cotton growers, however, had a tough season. From mid-September to early October, the peak harvest time, dozens of them milled about outside Shihezi railway and bus stations, desperately looking for migrant cotton pickers.

Li Chunsheng, a grower in Manas county, said, "After staying at the stations for nearly a week, I finally employed three laborers from Gansu province. They asked for 2.2 yuan a kilo, free accommodations and 400 yuan each for traveling expenses. I agreed."

Li said three laborers were "far from enough" for his four hectares of cotton, so he had to turn to temporary, local pickers who "asked for a higher price, being they were in big demand".

"I earned 15,000 yuan from cotton this year," Li said. "That is the only return for my whole year's farmwork and the family's only source of income. It's even less than the earnings of a cotton picker.

"We farmers don't know what to grow next year. Being a farmer is risky, as crop prices are not stable. I'll grow cotton again, as at least the government sets price protection for cotton."

Li Yugong, a labor contractor who has taken Henan workers to cotton farms in Xinjiang for more than seven years, was planning his trip from Shihezi to Henan two weeks ago to "order more laborers in advance".

"I have to arrive at Nanyang at Spring Festival, when lots of migrant laborers return home and look for new jobs. As the cotton picking in Xinjiang starts in September, I usually have verbal contracts with laborers and persuade them to come to Xinjiang," Li Yugong said.

"But it's very difficult to find enough hands, because young people tend to go south for decent, easy work. Only a few young people can bear the arduous, dull work of cotton picking."

Find original Cover Story, published on Oct 11, at