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Farmers enjoy foreign fruits of labour
By Li Fangchao (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-02-14 06:13

HARBIN: Last year was a fruitful year for Li Kui, a farmer of Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province. The 266 hectares of land he and 60 other farmers from the province worked on earned them each a net income of more than 10,000 yuan (US$1,233).

But unlike other farmers in the province, the land they toiled on was a little out of the way in Russia.

The group spent 2005 working at a farm in the city of Khabarovsk, several miles from Li's hometown, Shuanghe Town of Suiling County of the province.

"It is totally worth the trek," said 36-year-old Li.

The father of two previously had an average annual income of 1,800 yuan (US$222) from the 1.8 hectares of land at home to support his family.

His story is being mirrored throughout the agricultural-orientated province which has a rural population of 20 million, about half of the province's total.

With such a rich supply of rural labourers, more and more are choosing to work in other parts of the country or the world to earn more money.

Last year more than 4 million rural labourers, nearly half of the province's total rural labourers, left their hometowns for work, to earn a collective income of 12.9 billion yuan (US$1.59 billion), according to statistics from Heilongjiang Rural Labour Force Transfer Service Centre under the province's Agriculture Commission.

The number includes both seasonal jobseekers and fixed-contract workers, said Liu Guowen, deputy director of the centre.

About 140,000 farmers from the province worked outside China last year, a year-on-year increase of nearly 30 per cent, mainly in Russia, Japan and South Korea, said Liu.

They were mainly employed in farming-related jobs, such as leasing arable land and food processing in Russia and South Korea, while many of those in Japan were placed in the labour-intensive sector.

"As long as they go out to work, most of them can make more money than they would do at home," said Zhao Ruizheng, a researcher with the Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences, who has produced a paper on the province's labourer transfer to Russia.

He said leasing land in Russia, which has much more arable plots than China, can be very profitable.

One key reason for the farmers' success is that they can have more land to cultivate than at home, where per capita land is much smaller because of the vast population.

The similar natural conditions and climates also pose no new challenges to them, which facilitates their success, Zhao said.

He added that as the Sino-Russian border trade is becoming increasingly prosperous, more and more people in Heilongjiang, which shares more than 3,000 kilometres of borderline with Russia, have set up new ventures.

"Small businesses account for the majority of new ventures, things such as small stores selling domestic goods, as well as hairdressers," Zhao said.

"Restaurants operated by Chinese can also be seen everywhere in some border cities of Russia."

"Although they sometimes complain about various high charges there, they are still earning more than they would do carrying out the same business at home," he said.

Liu said that labourers transferring to foreign countries rather than within China needed more training because of higher technical or proficiency demands, as well as some basic language skills.

"Although the government has to pay a lot more towards the training of foreign-destined workers, we can earn even more than that back," Liu said.

Like Chuanmeizi in Southwest China's Sichuan Province, Heilongjiang is promoting its own labour brand Longge longmei (the brothers and sisters from Heilongjiang).

It already covers 100 commodities of 10 farming-related categories, according to Liu.

"A positive outcome of what has been happening is that farmers are now beginning to discard their old land-bound conceptions and are willing to travel and earn more," Liu said.

Liu said that instead of rushing blindly to major coastal cities to find work, it was better to follow the local government's guide, which was more reliable and secure.

As for Li Kui, he is moving steadily onwards and upwards by hoping to lead about 100 workers from the province to lease even more land in Russia.

(China Daily 02/14/2006 page3)

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