Text and photographs by Guan Wei
As the first morning rays illuminate thetea gardens of Xinxing Town, SongyangCounty, in eastern China’s ZhejiangProvince, Li Mingfang is already hard atwork collecting leaves along with 20 other pickers fromQinglong County in the southeastern province of Guizhou.He pinches a piece of sprout with two fingers ofhis left hand before snatching it with his right hand.
Songyang County is a well-known green tea producer,and its tea plantations cover more than 7,500hectares. With the expansion of the tea-planting area,a shortage of labor to harvest the leaves has becomeincreasingly problematic. Especially during springharvest season, each hectare of tea fields requires anaverage of 23 pickers. Supply of local labor lags far behinddemand. To tackle the problem, the county beganrecruiting workers from other provinces. Each harvestseason, pickers from Guizhou, Yunnan, Jiangxi, andHubei provinces flood the county to take advantage ofthe high demand for their services.
Li Mingfang hails from a remote mountain villagein Guizhou Province. Before he arrived in Songyang,he made a living growing crops such as corn and rice,as most of his neighbors did. Without any additionalincome, his family led a humble life. After a friend recommendedSongyang, he visited in person and became a tea picker.
It has been seven years since Li and his wife firstbecame migrant tea pickers. Each year, they stay inSongyang from spring until October, and earn about30,000 yuan for their efforts.
“When I arrived in Songyang, I met many tea pickersfrom my hometown,” he recalls. “We often chattedin our spare time, and traveled home together duringChinese New Year holidays.”
“Our boss treats us well,” he adds. “During holidays,he often gives us gifts such as sausages, beancurd, and moon cakes. Sometimes he gives clothes tous and our kids. He is happy to lend a hand when anyof us face difficulties. He’s just like family.”