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As China's Economy Grows, So does China's Child Labour Problem

Child labour in China is hardly a new phenomenon. For years, despite official regulations banning the employment of minors (defined by Chinese law as those under sixteen years of age), teenagers and even pre-adolescents from poorer regions of China have been drawn to the rapidly developing southern and coastal areas looking for work. For this army of juvenile labourers, employment is readily available in the workshops and factories (and to a lesser extent related industries, such as food service) that are at the heart of China's economic boom. A recent People's Daily Report cites an investigation undertaken by the government agency in charge of monitoring labour conditions in Shandong province's Jinan City. According to the report, the use of juvenile labour is most prevalent in the following industries: Toy production, textiles, construction, food production, and light mechanical work. Concerning the latter, the report concludes that child labour is particularly in demand because children have smaller hands and eyesight undamaged by years of labour, making them more desirable than adults for certain kinds of work.

More often than not, parents of juvenile workers have little choice but to send their children off to work; as school fees increase beyond the means of most rural families, educational opportunities for rural children grow increasingly dim. Further, the earnings of children, however meager, represent a substantial portion of much-needed income to poor families. Parents of juvenile labourers rarely have a clear idea of the adverse working conditions and physical risks inherent in industrial work. Moreover, the juvenile workers learn themselves are often reluctant to complain, knowing well the critical nature of their financial contributions to the family.

Underage labourers are particularly vulnerable to job related hazards resulting in injury and death, and this is because they tend to be less aware of workplace hazards than do adult workers. An adult working in a coal miner is generally aware of perilous conditions in which they work; a child working in a factory, on the other hand, is usually less aware of the dangers they face, making their situation all the more hazardous. Furthermore, while adult and juvenile labourers both shoulder similar burdens of financial contribution to the family, the workplace injury or death of a minor brings an even greater degree of bereavement and psychological damage to loved ones.

A report issued by Human Rights in China (http://www.hrichina.org) in March of this year documented the tragic case of five adolescent girls who appeared to have been poisoned by carbon monoxide smoke from a coal brazier lit in the confines of their cramped factory sleeping quarters. In an attempt to hide culpability for the girl's deaths, the panicked factory manager ordered that the bodies be disposed of immediately; later investigation revealed that two of the girls had likely been buried alive. Even among a Chinese public increasingly used to news of workplace tragedy, the egregiously grim nature of this case sparked outrage and gained widespread media coverage throughout China and abroad.

For better or worse, this case and others like it continue to shed light on the increasing problem of child labour and the adverse working conditions faced by child workers in China. Even the People's Daily, once reticent to cover potentially sensitive issues, has written extensively on the issue of child labour (1).

Few parents understand the dangers of allowing their children to enter the workforce. This low awareness in the public about child safety and protection provides a breeding ground for both exploitation and potential disaster. In late 2003, a reporter from Guangzhou's Southern Metropolis Newspaper did investigating child labour visited a local textile factory and found workers as young as twelve years old working as much as sixteen hours per day, more during peak production season. When the reporter asked to see the young worker's sleeping quarters, they replied that the cramped 200-square meter workshop was it, and that at night they slept on or under their worktables. (2) Far from being an anomaly, the reporter found similar conditions in other nearby factories. Surveying various sites around the industrial area, the reporter wrote that the area was filled with heaps of leftover textile scraps mixed with trash, presenting a great fire hazard. The reporter felt that the entire area was "ripe for catastrophe."

Another article published in the same paper on August 11th, 2004 concerned a primary school headmaster in Guangdong province's Huizhuo city. This headmaster was found employing students from his school in a private toy factory which he owned (3). According to the report, local labour and commercial officials found thirty-five juveniles between the ages of eight and sixteen working in the "headmaster's" factory. When informed of the illegality of his actions, the headmaster seemed surprised, and claimed to merely be offering the students an opportunity to earn money. As for the physical risk that factory work posed to his students, the headmaster said that he "would sooner risk his own life than that of one of the students."

We have to ask ourselves how the general public can hope to be made aware of the dangers of child labour when someone like a school headmaster, clearly responsible for the protection and education of children, could be so oblivious. Unfortunately, the issue is more complex, as one of the factors leading to the rise in child labour in China is the corresponding rise in school fees. While it's natural to see this headmaster as unscrupulously using his position for personal profit, it is also possible that rising costs and a virtual cessation of academic subsidies from the government made the operation of a small, privately owned factory seem to him a logical way of helping his students to continue their educations. Without further information, it is impossible to know for sure, but taking into account the dismantling of China's once-free socialist education system, either case is a possibility.

As various sources within the Chinese media have pointed out, documenting occupational health and safety problems among child labourers is inherently difficult because Chinese labour law bans child labour. One newly passed regulation makes the hiring of a minor punishable by a fine of 5000 Yuan per worker (cumulative per month of employ) and suspension of the employer's operating license. Other laws criminalize the placing of underage workers in potentially hazardous situations and forced bonding of a child for the purpose of labour (3). The problem lies not so much with regulation but lack of enforcement. Indeed, despite stiffer penalties, the problem of child labour has only become more serious in recent years. A growing economy coupled with a growing economic disparity provides a fertile ground for exploitation of societies most vulnerable members. Local governments, in a headlong rush to woo manufacturers into their districts are often reticent to enforce regulations against child labour, which might act as an impediment to local economic growth.

The problem of juvenile labour in China is far too multifaceted to be summarized in black and white terms. To address these complexities, we suggest that further and deeper studies into the root causes of the problem be carried out. We see these root causes as being a growing economic disparity in China, a rapidly changing social structure, and a failure of the Chinese educational system to provide adequate and affordable education to all children. Until these issues are addressed, it is our belief that the problem of child labour in China will continue to grow, and as it does incidents involving the injury and death of juvenile workers will continue. (4)

 

 

  1. People's Daily, December 20, 2002 "Concern over phenomenon of Child labor and child victims of economic kidnapping"
  2. Southern Metropolis News, October 21, 2003 "Sleeping under the working table" Textile factory hiring child labor.
  3. Southern Metropolis News, August 11, 2004 "Primary School headmaster hires own students as child labor" the education department considers suspending headmaster
  4. Linked at http://www.molss.gov.cn/correlate/gl9181.htm(Chinese Only).