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Geoff's blog
Child labour in China: History repeating itself
Three years ago, the Southern Metropolis Daily exposed a child labour trafficking ring that brought teenagers from the remote Liangshan region of Sichuan and sold them to factories across the Pearl River Delta.

Three days ago, the same media group, exposed a case of 21 adolescents who had been trafficked from Liangshan and sold to an electronics factory in Shenzhen’s Longgang district. The details of how the children were trafficked and the conditions they worked under were almost identical.

The only noticeable change in the two reports was that the traffickers appeared to be getting more sophisticated. Three years ago, the newspaper reported how children were “lined up like cabbages for sale” on the streets of Dongguan’s outlying townships. Nowadays, the children are acquired from a labour supply company with a registered address, but the system is basically the same: The factory signs an agreement with the supply company for a certain number of workers, the factory then pays the labourers’ wages to the supply company, the supply company then pays the labour contractor, who, after taking his cut, finally pays the workers.

The factory reportedly paid the supply company around 2,000 yuan per month for each worker. The workers only received around 1,500 yuan a month each from the contractor. For this, they had to work three shifts a day, Monday to Friday, starting at 7.40.am and finishing at 11.30.pm. They worked through the day on weekends, with Saturday and Sunday evenings being their only time off.

Further investigation by journalists, the police and labour inspectors showed that the factory, which produced Bluetooth appliances, had actually hired about 40 under-age workers out of a total workforce of 400. The factory claimed that it was a victim of a scam, and was unaware the workers were underage, saying the labour supply company had furnished the children with false identification cards.

The local police said the children would eventually all be sent back home to Sichuan. However, this will solve nothing. For some of the children, this was not the first time they had found work in the factories of the Pearl River Delta, and almost certainly will not be their last.

If they are sent back home, many will simply get on the first bus back to Shenzhen. For these children, there is little incentive and no compulsion to go back to school. The level of teaching in impoverished rural areas is very low and the school fees charged to parents often exorbitantly high. Many parents, and the children themselves, think they would be better off working.

It is a testament to the failure of the Chinese government that, despite decades of spectacular economic growth, it still cannot ensure that schools in poor rural districts get sufficient funding to provide all the children in that district with a decent education, free of charge, as required by the Compulsory Education Law.

Some multi-national companies that discover child labour in their supplier factories are now trying to make those factories pay for the education of the children after they have been sent back home. But, again, if the school they are being sent back to cannot provide them with a good education, it is unlikely to benefit the child. Rather it will only really benefit the multi-national’s corporate social responsibility profile.