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Child workers' wages withheld for up to a year
The revelation this week by an investigative reporter for the Sanqin Daily that child labourers at a factory in Shaanxi Province were forced to work 12 hour shifts in harsh conditions without pay for six months, is but an extreme example of a relatively common managerial practice, China Labour Bulletin's research report on child labour has shown.
Many factory owners in the nearby province of Hebei withheld wages from child labourers for an entire year, providing them with just basic food and accommodation and a small living allowance.
The rationale for this practice, factory owners said, was that child workers were too immature to manage their finances responsibly and would spend their meager salary all at once.
The manager of a luggage factory in the town of Baigou told CLB's researchers, "The basic wage is 400 yuan per person, with a bonus for good work. We pay the wages in a lump sum at the end of the year. Usually we give them something to get by on; they are young, and if we gave it all to them they would go and spend it all. Usually, if they want to buy something they can get a proportion of their wages in advance."
A local government labour bureau official in Baigou claimed that many parents of child workers specifically requested that factory owners send the child's salary directly to them in a lump sum at the end of the year.
A 20 year old worker who had been working at a clothing factory in the provincial capital, Shijiazhuang, for five years explained that her wages were "calculated by the piece, and adds up to around 400 yuan or 500 yuan, but we don't get it every month every month: it is paid at the end of the year. Usually the boss will give us 100 yuan [a month] for spending money."
The living and working conditions of the child workers exposed in the Sanqin Daily were also similar to those of the workers interviewed by CLB. In a well-known concentration of clothing factories in Gaozhu Village, Shijiazhuang, for example, it was common practice for factory owners to rent two storey residential homes, using the upper floor as cramped dormitory space for a few dozen workers, and the lower floor as a production facility where workers would often have to work 15 or 16 hour shifts until midnight, even longer if the factory was particularly busy.
CLB's report demonstrated that child workers were particularly vulnerable to this kind of exploitation, firstly, because as illegal workers they had no legal protection, and secondly, because they had very limited life experiences or understanding of labour laws and regulations, they just accepted their harsh treatment as a fait accompli.
In the wake of the Shanxi and Henan slave labour scandals there have been several exposés of child labour and the government has once again announced its determination to crackdown on the problem. However, as CLB's report demonstrates, the causes of child labour in China are deep rooted and systemic and will require not just a crackdown on violators but a vast increase in educational funding, significant reform of the education system and wide-ranging social and economic reform designed to make education a positive benefit for both children and parents rather than the financial burden it currently is for many poor rural families.