Tursonnissar Ali from Hotan county, the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, has already got used to the daily 15-minute ride on her scooter from her village on the edge of the Taklimakan Desert to get to the clothing factory where she works.
The 26-year-old said she has to work hard to keep her post at the factory because there is a long waiting list of people from nearby villages who want to get in. More important, she believes her good performance can secure her a better-paying managerial position.
Every morning, the parking lot of the factory at the foot of a sand dune is packed with the scooters of the workers who are all from Yingawati, a township in southern Xinjiang's Hotan prefecture. Before the factory was built in December 2018, the site was a part of the world's second-largest shifting desert, Tursonnissar said.
"Because of the desert, we only have very limited farmland and we were struggling to find other ways to improve our lives. Now this factory built on a small area of desert has provided many jobs for villagers like me," she said. "Who would say no to new opportunities on your doorstep?"
Tursonnissar is one of the local people who found work nearby thanks to the efforts of the region's government.
In recent years, Xinjiang has been focusing on areas of extreme poverty and key groups who have difficulty finding work. The region guides people of all ethnic groups to find work nearby, or to find jobs or start their own businesses in cities, and it encourages impoverished people to seek employment outside their hometowns, according to a white paper on employment and labor rights in Xinjiang published by the State Council Information Office in September.
From 2014 to 2019, the number of people employed in Xinjiang rose from 11.4 million to 13.3 million. The average annual relocation of surplus rural workers was more than 2.7 million people, of whom nearly 1.7 million, or over 60 percent, were in southern Xinjiang, the white paper said.
Tursonnissar applied for the job at the factory in March 2019. Working close to home allows her to care for her mother who suffers from high blood pressure. Because of her good communication and managerial skills, she was soon promoted to team leader of a production line, which pays about 4,000 yuan ($620) a month. She is planning to apply for the post of floor manager this year.
"It feels great to be able to fully support myself and my family. With more income, I have installed gas heaters in the house so my mother doesn't need to burn coal to keep warm. Some young female workers bought new clothes they like with money they made for the first time in their lives. We are all very proud of ourselves," she said.
Tursonnissar said some of her friends chose to work elsewhere after evaluating different options they learned about from village committees, job fairs or online. They often share their lives on social media and compare the welfare offered by different companies.
"We have a say in what we do and where we work. Maybe I will work in a bigger factory elsewhere or start my own business someday," Tursonnissar said.
She often wondered what she could have become if she hadn't dropped out of junior high school after religious extremists told her that going to school is a sin. "But looking back is pointless. All I can do is seize every opportunity and be ambitious."
From January to November 2020, 3.15 million jobless rural residents found employment, according to the Xinjiang Human Resources and Social Security Bureau. The move to create more job opportunities, particularly for members of the Uygur ethnic group in rural Xinjiang, has been portrayed by some Western politicians and media as encouraging "forced labor" in the region.
Desire for better life
"Because of the harsh natural environment, southern Xinjiang has always been relatively less developed, but people there have a strong desire to improve their lives by finding employment," said Abdulrehman Suber, Party secretary of the bureau's public employment service center. "Governments at all levels have attached great importance to providing employment services and training to the locals, but it's up to them to choose their jobs. Forced labor simply doesn't exist in Xinjiang."
On Jan 13, the United States announced a ban on imports of cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang amid claims of "forced labor". The ban applies to raw fibers, apparel and textiles made from Xinjiang-grown cotton and tomato-based food products. It also applies to products processed or manufactured in third countries. In 2020, China produced 5.91 million metric tons of cotton, of which 87.3 percent came from Xinjiang.
Companies that employ Uygurs are also often accused of forcing their employees to study Mandarin and take part in ideological studies before they can sign the contracts.
"We only teach the employees how to operate the machines and make sure they acquire the vocational skills they need for their jobs. There is no training session in Mandarin or ideological studies," said Ouyang Zhijun, manager of the Pomegranate Clothing Factory in Kuqa, a city in southern Xinjiang's Aksu prefecture.
Attracted by the local government's preferential policies, Ouyang set up the factory in March. The factory building once housed vocational skills-training workshops for the nearby vocational education and training center. Xinjiang has set up such centers since 2014 in accordance with the law to offer deradicalization programs and vocational training to those influenced by religious extremism and terrorism. All of the trainees have now graduated.
Ouyang rented the empty facility after all of the trainees in the center graduated in October 2019. About 81 percent of the factory's employees are from rural Kuqa and applied for the vacancies online or at job fairs. After they complete a monthlong trial period, the company will then sign employment contracts with them in accordance with the law. Employees can hand in their notice anytime they want if they decide to quit, just like at any other factory in China, Ouyang said.
"It's not fair to accuse businesses in Xinjiang of using so-called forced labor. We are here because we see the potential of the region. Moreover, no one could escape legal punishment if they permitted such circumstances to exist," he added.