JINAN, Nov. 30 (Xinhua) -- At the age of 63, Shi Cuiping, a rural resident in east China's Shandong Province, became a worker for the first time in her life.
Sitting under a sign that reads "getting rid of poverty and becoming better off" on the wall of a furniture workshop located within a few minutes walk from her home in Juancheng County, Shi carefully weaved a rattan chair that would be one of many shipped to big cities around the world.
Shi earns nearly 2,000 yuan (about 300 U.S. dollars) a month, much less than her son, who went south to Ningbo as a migrant worker. But the workshop gives her the flexibility to leave at any time, something Shi feels very important.
At 10:50 a.m., Shi rose from her chair and walked out of the front door. "I'm going to pick up my granddaughter from school. I'll cook a good meal for her," she said.
Around 60 people like Shi work in the 440-square-meter workshop. They are mostly women, seniors, or the disabled, those often "left behind" to look after children in China's rural areas when their family members leave to earn higher salaries in big cities. They are now able to earn a meager income in thousands of the so-called "poverty-relief workshops" that have recently sprung up in villages.
With vast areas of plains stretching across counties, the city of Heze, which administers Juancheng County, is traditionally known for its agriculture. A lack of big companies or industrial bases has left the area relatively underdeveloped, and its impoverished population accounts for more than half of provincial total.
In the past two years, more than 2,800 workshops employing rural residents have been opened with the help of the local government, employing 235,245 people that previously lived below the provincial poverty line of 3,000 yuan (in 2010 prices) per capita annually.
Most are engaged in simple labor intensive work such as hair processing, toy making, and furniture manufacturing.
The good part of these workshops is that they are all located within walking distance of the villagers' homes, allowing them to take care of daily chores while working in their spare time, said Cai Weichao, who is in charge of Heze's poverty relief work.
China has an ambitious goal of lifting the entire population out of poverty by 2020, when the country will complete the building of a moderately prosperous society.
Remarkable progress has been made in the past five years, as the country has lowered the number of people living below the national poverty line of 2,300 yuan by an average of 13 million each year, or 20 people every minute.
But it's the remaining 43 million Chinese, many of whom are disabled or elderly, who pose a more difficult challenge for poverty relief officials.
The building of the poverty-relief workshops does not only create jobs for those left behind in rural areas, but simultaneously boosts local industries and increases tax revenue for the community, Cai said.
In Juancheng, "hiring" signs hang on the walls of many local enterprises.
According to Fan Jifu, manager of a hair-processing company, the rural workshops have helped ease labor shortages and saved the company about 20 percent in labor costs.
The firm currently collects semi-processed hair products from six such rural workshops, where women and seniors are paid approximately 1,000 to 2,000 yuan (about 150 to 300 U.S. dollars) a month for simple procedures such as hair sorting.
Seeing job opportunities in their hometowns, some migrant workers are returning from cities and using their experience to run the workshops.
Wang Changyuan has returned to Juancheng and now is in charge of more than 30 workers, 18 of whom previously lived under the poverty line.
As an infant, Wang contracted polio and could only walk with the help of a crutch.
He was in his early 20s when his parents died, leaving him to take care of his younger brother.
After working as an apprentice in clothing factories in cities such as Beijing and Qingdao, Wang decided to come home last year after a phone call from a local official informed him of an opportunity to run his own factory.
At the newly built clothing workshop in the village where he grew up, Wang manages his employees, many of whom he knew as a child.
He named his company "Zhongfa," which means "get rich together" in Chinese. As someone who has survived despite poverty and disability, he hopes no one in the workshop will have to experience what he went through.
"I hope I can earn enough money to buy them some extra meat in winter and ice creams in the summer," Wang said.