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Seminar suggests child labour is on the rise in China
The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 215 million children around the world engaged in work. No one knows for sure how many children are working in China because the government does not publish such data, but the recent signs are worrying.

Several participants at a seminar in Shenzhen last week indicated that the use of child labour was on the rise again, particularly since the implementation of the Labour Contract Law in 2008. Children were primarily employed by factories as a means of cutting costs.

“Factory managers don’t really care whether their workers are under the legal working age of 16, especially when there is a shortage of labour,” one NGO worker at the seminar said. Some employers don’t check the age of workers, and just take the word of other family members, he said.

Children are employed in a wide range of industries but predominately in sectors that need to hire large groups of low-skilled workers on a seasonal basis, such as the food processing industry.

One participant of the seminar said she had been to a factory where almost half of the 1,000 workers were children. While another NGO found that more than ten percent of the workers in two glass factories surveyed in Shanxi were children.

Most child workers are 14 or 15 years old, but some seminar participants reported that they have seen children as young as eight. Many children start work because they lost interest in studying and dropped out of school, usually with the consent of their parents. However, families are more willing to let their daughters, rather than their sons, drop out of school and work for the family. In many cases, daughters are expected to work to support their brother’s studies.

Representatives of major international brands at the seminar said that it was difficult for them to know whether or not their suppliers used child workers. Factory managers coach children to lie about their age or provide them with false identities, as such, even unannounced audits could not detect the use of child labour. Some brands are now monitoring the recruitment process to make sure that their suppliers pay more attention to the age of their workers.

At present, if child workers are discovered by the authorities, they are simply sent back home. Most return to the city to look for another job as soon as possible. To counter this problem, some international brands now require their suppliers to sponsor the child’s education or provide vocational training so that when they reach the legal work age they can get a better job. However, few factory owners have introduced such programs.

Unfortunately, the seminar confirmed that the problems identified in CLB’s 2005 research report on child labour in China still exist, and may even be getting worse.