In Memory of Liu Li (1984 – 2001)

27 June 2019


The use of child labour in China is not restricted to the special economic zones on the coast. Many researchers argue that it is even more widespread in small-scale privately owned factories and even mines in China’s poorer inland areas. Township and village enterprises (TVEs), usually owned by local entrepreneurs or government officials, are also notorious for cutting costs by using child labour. The following article is based on an edited translation of a report that appeared in the state-owned newspaper China Youth. Additional information has been added from other sources in order to provide a fuller picture of the situation the original mainland reporter uncovered. The article concerns the death from overwork of a young woman, Liu Li. While Liu was not a child worker, many of her co-workers were under the legal limit for employment. The district of Wuhan city where she worked is notorious for its sweatshops and underage workers.

In Memory of Liu Li (1984 – 2001)

Liu Li was one of four children born to farming parents in the village of Honghu county, Hubei province. Grinding poverty drove her father south to look for work, taking his eldest daughter with him. Consequently Liu Li dropped out of primary school and helped her mother with the farm work and care of the two younger children.

Time passed and Liu Li watched many teenagers leave her village to seek work in the towns and cities. Like most of the young people in the village, she wanted to leave too. Her chance came during Spring Festival, 2001. A woman, also surnamed Liu, who had left the village earlier and married, came back and announced that she had opened a clothes factory in Wuhan and was looking for apprentices. She would provide board and lodgings and a little pocket money, but no wages. Desperate to leave the village, Liu Li persuaded her mother to let her go. Her mother later told later reporters that although her daughter was only signing up as an unwaged apprentice, she would at least learn a trade of sorts. In February, Liu Li and seven other girls from nearby villages left for the city. At 17 Liu was the eldest -– the rest were aged between 13 and 16 years old.

From Impoverished Village to City Sweatshop

Boss Liu’s “clothes factory” turned out to be a workshop on the second floor of a residential block in the Yuhudi area of Hanyang district, Wuhan city. The total floor space was 23 square metres, in which were placed several sowing machines, an ironing board and an electric iron. The room had been divided into three separate levels using planks of wood as false ceilings. Beneath the workshop was another workroom and above was a kind of attic where the employees slept. There was just one metre between the makeshift “floor” and the apartment’s ceiling, rendering even the most basic of activities such as dressing an ordeal. In winter, the girls slept in the attic but during the unrelenting heat of Wuhan’s summer, they slept on mats on the floor of the lower workroom.

And so to Work

Yuehudi is situated close to the famous Hanzheng Street Goods Market, where previously many small garment factories had shared space with the market traders’ shops and stalls. The expensive rents on this street have gradually driven the clothing sweatshops to a new location behind the market. This area is now home to dozens of small-scale workshops and goods processing factories, mostly making and finishing garments.

According to a civilian police officer named Xiang, the garment workshop bosses were predominantly from the surrounding counties of Honghu, Xiantao and Jianli. When they arrived to set up shop in the city, they often brought along relatives and fellow villagers and set them to work making clothes. Officer Xiang said that some of these workers were very young and that his unit often discovered child workers among them. On August 8th , the labour bureau, the industry and commerce bureau and Xiang’s police station co-ordinated a raid on 12 small-scale private companies. Ten child workers were discovered in over half of the workshops. One of the suspected companies was a hair salon and the other five were garment workshops. The bosses skirted regulations with forged or false papers. When applying for temporary urban resident permits for the villagers, they would often bring false ID cards or alter the age on the required documents to 16, the legal age of employment. In reality, many of the workers were only 12 or 13 years old. According to local residents, the young workers would often have to work late into the night and some bosses would play loud music to keep the younger ones awake and working. The locals said that they would generally start work in the afternoon and often keep going until daylight the next day, depending on orders. Bosses would go to Hancheng market each morning and rush back with the cloth so the workers could start work in the afternoon. When the products were completed, they would take them back to the market and pick up more cloth. So it went on, day in day out.

Worked to Death

At 12 noon on July 9th, Boss Liu, who had brought Liu Li and the children from the countryside, came back from the market with a pile of cloth and set her employees to work. The temperature that day was 36 degrees centigrade and the atmosphere in the workshop was hot and oppressive. A single, old electric fan blew hot air around the room. Worried that the orders would not be completed, Boss Liu made the workers continue stitching all afternoon without a break. They stopped for an evening meal, but were back at work immediately afterwards. Liu Li was responsible for lockstitching, which involved sowing “border” stitches onto the clothes. She had a bad cold that day, but was not allowed to rest as they were short-staffed.

At 4 am, the 16-hour shift finally ended. Liu Li stood up from her machine but was too dizzy to climb up to the attic to sleep. Suddenly, she blacked out. The boss ordered several workers to take her to a nearby clinic where a doctor prescribed drugs to bring her round. However, as it became clear that Liu was not recovering, the doctor ordered her to be transferred to a nearby hospital immediately. At 6am, Boss Liu allowed Liu to be taken to Wuhan Number One Hospital and went back to her workshop. By this time, Liu’s temperature had risen to 42 degrees centigrade and her heartbeat was 220 beats per minute. At 9.20am, seventeen-year-old Liu Li died.

According to reports, Liu Li’s mother immediately rushed to the hospital as soon as she heard her daughter was ill. She arrived to find a corpse. However, she refused to blame Boss Liu saying through her tears “my child was not blessed with good fortune, I do not blame you”. Boss Liu’s landlord said that she had heard rumours that her tenant had contributed to the funeral costs. Some say she gave a few thousand bucks, other tens of thousands. Whatever: the money is not going to bring this vivacious young woman back to life.

Change in Sight?

On August 11th, I went to the three-story building where Liu had worked. The second floor apartment/workshop was locked. The landlord lived on the third floor. She said that after Liu Li’s death, Boss Liu had returned to the countryside and taken the girls with her. She had not paid the outstanding rent. As I left, I saw another workshop on the corner of the street. It was just 20 or so square metres in size and contained seven sewing machines. On entering, I saw that there was another separate small room that turned out to be the boss’s living quarters. Several “baby face” workers were playing cards in the small room. They said they were from Xiantao county and had not heard about the death of Liu Li several days earlier. They said they had only just arrived.

I have heard that from mid-July, Wuhan authorities launched a clean up of the city’s sweatshops in the districts of Shiqiaokou and Hanyang, notorious for employing child labour. The police, labour bureau and industry and commerce bureau have joined forces to seek out child workers and deal with them according to the law. Shiqiaokou district had also set up a management committee to efficiently manage rural labour coming into the city. Too late for Liu Li.

(China: China Youth, 13/08/01, HK: SCMP, 15/08/01, Apple Daily, 14/08/01)


Online: 2001-09-03

Back to Top

This website uses cookies that collect information about your computer.

Please see CLB's privacy policy to understand exactly what data is collected from our website visitors and newsletter subscribers, how it is used and how to contact us if you have any concerns over the use of your data.