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Six months after deadly China quake, jobs are key to recovery

Workers install an electricity power grid surrounded by the landslide mountains, outside Wenchuan county, in China's southwestern province of Sichuan on November 10, 2008. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Staff Writers
Wenchuan, China (AFP) Nov 11, 2008
When the Sichuan earthquake struck southwest China on May 12, Zeng Shanjun and his wife saw their home collapse and the factory where they worked destroyed. Their world fell apart.

Six months later, the pair are unemployed and have no idea what the future holds for them in their devastated home town of Yingxiu, which sits at the epicentre of the 8.0-magnitude quake here in Wenchuan county.

The most destructive earthquake to hit China in more than 30 years left nearly 88,000 people dead or missing and triggered one of the biggest relief efforts in Chinese history.

"Right now there is no work. This is difficult for us. We have four mouths to feed and very little savings," said 48-year-old Zeng, his eyes saddened and his grey hair showing through a poorly done dye job.

"We have tried to get work. I'll even do sanitation work for 550 yuan (80 dollars) a month, but even that kind of job I can't get," he told AFP.

Both Zeng and his wife previously worked at a herbal medicine processing plant in Yingxiu, but the factory was completely destroyed and the two do not know if the company plans to rebuild in the town.

Although Zeng lost his home and his belongings, he considers himself lucky as his only daughter survived the quake and is currently staying with relatives outside the quake zone where she continues her studies.

About 6,000 people in Yingxiu were left dead or missing by the quake and almost all of the town's 5,000 survivors now live in makeshift prefabricated homes built by the government, vice town head Li Qiang said.

"We figure about 70 percent of the urban population of Yingxiu is unemployed, this is one of our biggest problems," the 38-year-old Li told AFP.

"Right now we can basically take care of food and shelter, but we face a huge challenge in getting people employed."

More jobs will come on line as Yingxiu begins rebuilding its infrastructure, and as the badly damaged hydroelectric system along the Min river -- the town's major employer -- is rebuilt, he said.

A government programme to ensure that at least one person in every family is working has resulted in the re-employment of 760 people in low-paying clean-up jobs and maintenance work, he said.

"These are the kinds of programmes that we have been urging the government to set up," Constance Thomas, China director for the UN's International Labour Organisation (ILO), told AFP.

"Employment is an important part of the recovery process because if you don't employ then you don't recover."

Thomas estimates that at a minimum 1.5 million people were left jobless due to the direct impact of the earthquake, while indirectly an untold number of people have already lost or could lose their jobs.

"The global economic downturn has not helped either as a lot of rich provinces like Guangdong and Zhejiang that promised to help employ quake victims are now facing rising unemployment themselves," she said.

Besides setting up pilot re-employment programmes in six counties, the ILO is offering the government assistance in re-establishing 1,000 small businesses and setting up 700 other small enterprises as an effort to create employment.

That could be good news for Zhu Chengjian, who lost nearly 10 million yuan when his tea processing plant in Leigu town in neighbouring Beichuan county was destroyed by the earthquake.

"I need a loan of between four and five million yuan (585,000 and 730,000 dollars)," the stocky Zhu, who is a member of the Qiang ethnic minority, told AFP.

"If I can get that loan, I can begin construction within three months."

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California readies for earthquake drill, conference
Los Angeles (AFP) Nov 10, 2008
Millions of people across Southern California are to take part in an earthquake drill later this week aimed at preparing the state for a devastating seismic disaster, officials said Monday.

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