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China Offers More Jobs to Migrant Workers

China is removing barriers to offer more jobs to millions of farmers flocking into cities to look for employment -- and to help them live like urban dwellers.

The country's migrant millions remain in the spotlight this year as the Chinese government launched a "Spring Breeze Action" to help them find jobs, by simplifying procedures and reducing costs.

The program, launched by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, has for the first time offered jobs to the migrant population without charging any service fees.

About 113 million out of China's 900 million peasant farmers have taken on jobs at construction sites, production lines or in the service sector -- often jobs that are too strenuous, dirty or underpaid for city dwellers.

This special group of people, excluded for long from the urban job market and social security schemes, drew unprecedented attention in 2004, in the wake of a nationwide drive to tackle their wage arrears -- in which Premier Wen Jiabao himself played an exemplary leading role.

China's capital Beijing has vowed to offer at least 100,000 jobs to rural laborers and banned old regulations that discouraged local employers from recruiting migrant workers to fill up certain vacancies.

In the fortnight following the Spring Festival in February, the biggest family union festival for the Chinese, the southern boom city Shenzhen has held 17 recruitment fairs for the migrant job-hunters to meet potential employers.

Also in February, east China's Zhejiang Province lifted a 10-year-old licensing system that requested the migrant population to apply for an official permit before going to the urban job market.

"These are all signs that the migrant workers have come to enjoy the same treatment as the urban residents," said Wen Jiating,a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the country's top political advisory body that is to open its annual meeting Thursday.

In Wen's home province Anhui alone, large crowds of farmers leave their cropland for the cities hunting for jobs each year.

With the progress of China's industrialization process, there is a growing trend for other industries to foster agriculture that has been for centuries the lifeline of China's economic and social development, said President Hu Jintao at a central working conference on agriculture at the end of 2004.

The conference pledged to continue agriculture-friendly policies, ensure steady increase in grain output and increase farmers' income in 2005.

Farmers make up at least 60 percent of China's 1.3 billion people, but agriculture contributes merely 15 percent to the country's gross domestic product. Experts say there's a yawning income gap between the rural and urban residents, as an average farmer makes only one third as much as his urban peer.

The National Bureau of Statistics said average incomes for China's farmers rose 6.8 percent in 2004, the biggest increase in seven years. Yet the average income for farmers stood at just 2,936 yuan (US$355) per person, while the annual average income for the Chinese has exceeded US$1,000 per capita.

How to increase the farmers' income is believed by experts to be a hot topic for discussion at the top advisory meeting, as well as the annual congress session that is due Saturday.

"To foster agriculture and resolve a host of other issues in the countryside, it's crucial to create more jobs for the farmers," said Han Jun, the head of the Development Research Center (DRC) under the State Council, or the central government.

International practices have proven the transfer of rural laborers to non-agricultural sectors is essential in increasing farmers' income, said Lin Yifu, a renowned Beijing University economist and member of the CPPCC National Committee.

"China has to divert 250 million rural farmers to non-agricultural sectors in the coming 15 years to evolve into a comparatively well-off society by 2020," he said.

The Chinese government has also come to realize the inflow of migrant workers is a rational behavior consistent with the laws of market economy. In a recent speech, Vice Premier Hui Liangyu referred to migrant laborers as "an important group of industrial workers" and "builders of national wealth".

The government has started to finance vocational training for the migrants in a bid to brace them for urban jobs.

Yet experts say inequality still exists between rural and urban residents in terms of employment, social security and access to other public services. "We're yet to do away with many other barriers and create a sound environment for farmers to work -- and live -- exactly like the city people," said Han Jun, the DRC researcher.

He said China still needs to build an effective mechanism to ensure timely payment of migrants' wages.

Underpayment and inadequate social security coverage are cited as main causes for the present labor shortage in some coastal regions, including the Guangzhou-centered Pearl River Delta, a booming manufacturing hub.

(Xinhua News Agency March 3, 2005)

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