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Economic Downturn Takes Toll on China's Millions of Migrant Workers


The Lunar New Year holiday in China is the main chance each year for the country's 130 million migrant workers to return home to visit their families. Many return to the countryside, hundreds of kilometers away from their jobs.

This year's travels are taking on a more somber tone, though, as the global economic downturn shutters Chinese factories.

Buses full of people head to Sichuan province's Zhugao, which the Chinese call, "Number One Migrant Worker Town."

Some of the buses come directly from commercial manufacturing hubs in Guangdong province, more than 1,200 kilometers away.

Zhang Guangfu runs the main long-distance bus service in Zhugao. "Yeah, the workers are coming back from the factories that are not doing well," Guangfu said. "But some of them will still go out after the Lunar New Year. Zhugao is the Number One Migrant Worker town in all of China."

About half of Zhugao's 400,000 people work in other cities. For those who have come back home, waiting has become one of the main pastimes.

Zhugao resident, surnamed Zhong, recently returned home without a job, after working in a shoe factory in Guangzhou for nearly eight years. He now waits with a growing number of other motorcyclists for fewer and fewer paying passengers.

"I think I will still go out to work after the Lunar New Year, most likely back to Guangzhou because I already have been working there so long," he said. "I am skilled. I was working in a big shoe factory there. I have no other way to get a job. With the economic crisis, there is no other way."

Most residents in Zhugao and surrounding villages prefer to try to make a living outside of the area.

Villager Cai Fengqiong has worked for more than a decade at shoe factories - first in Guangzhou, now closer to home, in Chengdu, Sichuan's provincial capital. She has not had much work since June. And the economic downturn is also sharply hurting her efforts to return to farming.

"Because of the financial crisis, we cannot sell our oranges," she said. "They were all ripe in October, but we just left them on the tree because we couldn't sell them."

Cai says most of her neighbors have returned for the holiday. She says farmers like her at least can come home and will not starve. "But if there is any job outside, nobody wants to stay home. Most of the people in my village will all leave to work if they are able to, no matter if they are male or female," she said. "If you stay home, you simply don't see any income."

Like many of her neighbors, Cai says she is not sure what she is going to do after the Lunar New Year holiday is over. But she says she hopes the financial crisis passes quickly, so she can return to work, or at least have better luck selling her oranges.

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