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Child labour remains a widespread and serious problem in China

Ten years after the adoption of the International Labour Organization’s Convention on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour on 12 May 1999, there is little evidence that the Chinese government, which ratified the convention in 2002, is making a determined effort to tackle the problem.

The government still does not publish statistics on the extent of child labour in China, and its primary concern seems to be to keep the problem out of sight and out of mind.

Officials usually only take action when the Chinese media exposes particularly egregious abuses, such as the Shanxi slave labour brickyards scandal in May 2007, and the trafficking of children from Liangshan to Dongguan in April 2008. In these cases, officials launched investigations, “rescued” the children concerned and sent them home. Many children never got home however, some were sold to other factory owners, and those that did get home received little care or counseling, and remained vulnerable to traffickers in the future.

The Chinese government has done very little to address the root cause the problem; namely the appalling state of the rural school system in China. As CLB pointed out in its 2007 report on child labour, the government’s commitment to nine years compulsory education for all children has not been fulfilled. In most rural areas, despite numerous central government initiatives to waive school fees and provide subsidies for poor families, parents across rural China still have to pay a wide range of fees to keep their children in schools that can only provide a substandard education. Consequently, many parents feel they have no option but to take their children out of school early and send them out to work.

On World Day against Child Labour, the Chinese government could take a significant step towards fulfilling its commitments by ensuring that sufficient funds get to the schools that need them, so that those schools no longer need to rely on their students’ parents for funding. The most important task is to ensure that primary and middle school teachers in rural areas are paid the wages they are entitled to under the law. Under the 1993 Teachers Law, teachers should be paid at the same rate as civil servants but in reality this hardly ever happens, many only get a third or a quarter of other government employee salaries.

At the end of last year, rural school teachers in Sichuan, Chongqing, Hubei, Hunan, and Shaanxi staged a series of strikes to demand the wages they were entitled to. Some local governments found additional funding, but many others stalled or obfuscated.

The key problem is that local governments are responsible for funding primary and middle schools, but they either do not have sufficient funds or those funds have been siphoned-off by corrupt officials. The central and higher levels of local government need to make a greater financial commitment to funding compulsory education and ensure the money gets to where it is needed.

And because the Party and government have thus far failed to effectively police their own officials, they need to make local education officials publicly accountable for their actions, and make their budgets and appropriations open to public scrutiny.