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Drought forces farmers to labor markets

A farmer walks on a cracked field at Sanjiao Township.

TEXT OF STORY

SCOTT JAGOW: This year, farmers in southwest China suffered their worst drought in 50 years. Two-thirds of the rivers have dried up. 18 million people are short of drinking water. Finally, the rains have returned. But it's too late for the crops. More now from Jocelyn Ford.


JOCELYN FORD: Farmers who've lost their crops and can't put food on the table are likely to end up in crowded, noisy places like this.

About a thousand laborers mill around in a large empty room. They are waiting for potential employers to show up.

It's called a labor market. It's the Chinese version of an employment agency, except there aren't a lot of rules.

Contracts are verbal promises. Employers are not penalized for ignoring minimum wage. Some jobseekers sit on the floor with signs advertising their skills: cook, construction worker, housemaid.

When I walk in, I'm mobbed by people shouting out their skills, and calling me boss. They think a westerner will offer a premium salary, maybe even a job in Los Angeles. Or "Los ange" as they say in Chinese.

34-year-old farmer Li Yongxiu stands quietly in a corner. It's her first day at the labor market, and she's lost in a sea of competitors.

LI YONGXIU [translated]:"I lost two thirds of my corn and half our rice. We won't be able to make it through the winter if I don't get a paying job."

Most of China's 700 million farmers grow only enough to feed their families, and perhaps sell a pig to pay for school fees, electricity, medicine.

There's no crop insurance in China. And China has no safety net.

The government's only handout to drought victims was a free train ticket. It was good for a 70-hour ride to the far west to pick the cotton fields. About 100,000 farmers participated.

World Bank development officer Sari Soderstrom says the train ticket may not be enough.

SARI SODERSTROM:"It was not many years ago that many of these farmers had several months of food deficit. So if it doesn't rain now and they miss this crop a lot of vulnerable people are gonna fall below the subsistence level again."

That sort of financial crisis could also pull down the next generation.

SODERSTROM:"It will impact children who might be sent to good boarding high schools. It might impact a younger brother that was supposed to be sent off to college if he passed the entrance exams. "

At the labor market, Li Yongxiu isn't thinking so far in the future. She figures she can make $60 a month washing dishes. That will be enough money to keep her children in school.

To get a more secure job that pays minimum wage, she'd have to pay a fee to register at a government agency, but she figures no one would hire her because she only graduated from junior high.

In Chongqing, I'm Jocelyn Ford for Marketplace.

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