The number of children working in China is not known. Because of China's repressive political system, it was not possible to obtain any information directly from China. There are no Chinese non-governmental organizations (NGOs) active in this area, and foreign NGOs do not have access. Accordingly, it was impossible to corroborate or reject allegations by various labor and human rights organizations that children are working in export industries which produce for the United States market. It was also impossible to assess how diligently the Chinese Government enforces child labor laws or prosecutes child labor law violators, as well as to determine efforts by non-governmental organizations to address child labor in China.
The American Embassy in Beijing notes that "most independent observers agree with the assessment of Chinese officials that China's industrial child labor problem is relatively minor."1 On the other hand, some China-watchers infer growing child labor problems in China, particularly in areas around Hong Kong, based on a high dropout rate from school and the rapid expansion of foreign investment in export-oriented enterprises. Meanwhile, an official from the Chinese Ministry of Labor admitted that the employment of children was "very serious" in China.1
According to the State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993, no specific Chinese industry is identifiable as a significant violator of child labor regulations. News reports alluding to possible child labor problems in China are anecdotal in nature, providing details on specific investigations of factory fires and other disasters where children were present. These involve a range of export industries including garments/textiles, fireworks, and toys. There is some anecdotal information on child labor in the footwear, electronics, handicrafts (including artificial flowers)2, and gun industries, but supporting evidence is not available.
II. Child Labor in Export Industries
In a November 1991 "circular" to various provinces and cities, the Chinese Ministry of Labor admitted that the situation regarding the employment of child laborers was "very serious" throughout the country.3 The circular apparently stated that exploiting child laborers has become a common phenomenon. For example, in some coastal areas and special economic zones, such as Fujian and Guangdong, as well as Zhejiang, Sichuan, and Hubei, there are reported to be four to five million child laborers under the age of 16. Child laborers under 12 years of age are also found in Whenzhou and in some areas of Guangdong and Hainan. The circular said that children usually work 10 to 14 hours a day, but their wages are just about half of adult workers.
Much of the evidence of child labor in China is derived from data from the large special economic zone of Shenzhen in southern China. Children between the ages of 10 to 16 are reportedly working up to 14 hours a day in factories in Shenzhen.4 According to an article in the Jakarta Post in 1988, the China Daily reported on August 4, 1988 that girls work between 13 to 14 hours a day from 7 a.m.- 10 p.m. with two one-hour breaks.5 The China Daily reported that after first paying for housing, electricity, water, and training, workers have little money leftover.6 According to the China Youth News, conditions for children can be "extremely bad."7 The China Youth News said that 44 of the 206 foreign-owned companies or joint ventures in Shenzhen employ children under 16 years of age.8
In a recent report, the Asian-American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI) affirmed that, at least in large urban factories, underage employment does not occur on a mass basis,9 but violations of minimum age standards occur more commonly in sub-contracting factories producing for export.10 According to AAFLI, China has had an explosion of production for export in non-urban areas, both in rural and township communities due, to a recent boom in the economy.
A review of current literature suggests that child labor is found in the export of fireworks, garment/textiles, and toys. Although allegations exist of child labor in Chinese electronics, handicrafts (artificial flowers), and gun factories, these allegations have not been documented.
The United States imported approximately $67 million of pyrotechnics and explosives from China in 1992.11 Children are reportedly working in the fireworks industry. A recent newspaper report detailed an explosion at a fireworks factory in Hebei killing one child and injuring 34 school girls ranging from 11 to 13 years of age.12 Investigators found that the school children had been forced by their teachers to work for slave wages making firecrackers. The school children were apparently promised 20 fen (2 cents) for making one long braid of firecrackers, but were actually paid three fen (0.3 cents). In its China Labor Notes newsletter of February/March 1994, AAFLI observes that this information was made public 38 days after the disaster occurred and no television coverage was permitted.13 In 1992, another fire at a fireworks factory killed 20 workers - it was reported that most of those killed were between 9 and 14 years old.14
Garments and Textiles
Newspaper and journal reports indicate that children are allegedly working in the garment and textile industries of China. Imports of apparel and textiles from China to the U.S. market reached approximately $4.5 billion during 1993. Agence France Presse reported that China's number one textile firm at Qingpu, near Shanghai, employs children aged 12 to 15 years old allegedly recruited from the neighboring province of Anhui.15 A 1993 article in the periodical Dapeng Bay reported that at Chungsan City, a foreign textile enterprise employed about 160 child laborers, and that a 14 year old was killed after her hair became tangled in her machine.16 In August 1988, Beijing's national radio broadcasted an expose of working conditions in Shenzhen after journalists found 12 year-old children sleeping two to three in a bed in dorms and working 15 hours a day for $10 per month. One child worker also showed a burn mark inflicted by the factory machine.17
The International Child Labor Study staff also received numerous allegations of the use of child labor in toy, sporting equipment, and game factories. In 1992, the United States imported approximately $3.9 billion worth of toys, games, and sporting goods from China.18 A 1988 Business Week article reported that, in order to meet the holiday demand for toys, girls at a plant were ordered to work one or two 24-hour shifts each month.19 The allegations of the employment of children under 14 years in China's toy industry helped prompt the "Toycott Campaign" urging a boycott of toys made in China.20
III. Laws of China
A. National Child Labor Laws
A new labor law published on July 6, 1994 (effective January 1, 1995), prohibits the employment of children under 16 years of age.21 Previously, according to the U.S. Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993, regulations promulgated in 1987 prohibited the employment of school age minors who had not completed the compulsory nine years of education.22
The enforcement of laws is sometimes made difficult by counterfeit identification cards. AAFLI reports that, according to workers in southeastern China, the use of counterfeit IDs is fairly common. Some workers admitted that they were three or four years younger than the 16 years certified on their ID cards.23
B. Education Laws
The International Labor Organization reports that compulsory education in China is required up to age 16.24 In a recent article in the Dapeng Bay periodical, children are reported to be dropping out of school at increasing rates.25 According to the U.S. State Department, Chinese press reports indicate that dropout rates for lower secondary schools (ages 12 to 15) exceed nine percent in several southern provinces, whereas the national average is 2.2 percent.26 The Christian Science Monitor reported that in 1987 at least three million Chinese children left school to begin work, joining 37 million other child dropouts from schools in the city and the countryside.27 An increasing group of children leaving school below the legal work age suggests the possibility of a growing child labor problem.
C. International Conventions
China is a party to ILO Convention No. 59 Concerning Minimum Age for Admission to Employment in Industry and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. China has not ratified ILO Convention No. 138 Concerning Minimum Age for Admission to Employment.
IV. Programs and Efforts To Address Child Labor
According to the Xinhua News Service, China has set up 2,763 courts to deal with cases involving juvenile delinquency and violation of children's rights, as well as 17 provincial committees for the protection of children.28 After the fire at the handicrafts/toy factory at Zhili, Chinese authorities compelled 100 Guangdong factory owners to tour the remains of the factory. They have also announced tough fire safety regulations.29 The AAFLI report notes that in early 1994, the Guangdong Labor Department issued a booklet summarizing pertinent labor laws and regulations, but it contained no mention of minimum age.
1 American Embasssy - Beijing, unclassified telegram no. 041337, Nov. 17, 1993.
1 "'Cheng Ming' PRC reports contradict official figures on social problems," BBC Summary of World Broadcasts (January 6, 1992) [hereinafter BBC, January 6, 1992] citing excerpts from article by Kung Yen, 'Cheng Ming' (Hong Kong, January 1, 1992).
2 In 1988 a newspaper article reported that an artificial flower factory in China's Shenzhen Special Economic Zone was caught employing girls as young as 12, who were paid 72 cents a day a for 14 to 15 hours of work. Michael Browning, "Proposed Toycott has China denying child-labor charge," Herald Staff Writer, [publication and date unknown, on file].
3 BBC, January 6, 1992.
4 "Children Still Exploited in China,"Jakarta Post, August 5, 1988.
7 "Report Says Child Labor Rampant in Chinese City," Associated Press, August 3, 1988.
9 Child Labor in China (Asian-American Free Labor Institute, June 1994) 5 [on file] [hereinafter 1994 AAFLI China Report].
11 U.S. Merchandise Trade: Exports and General Imports by Country (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census, 1993) A89.
12 "China Fireworks Blast Hurts Forced-Labor Pupils," Reuters, March 8, 1994.
13 1994 AAFLI China Report at 3. See also "Accident in Fireworks Plant Injures Child Laborers," in China: Labor Notes, (Asian-American Free Labor Institute, February/March 1994) 4. Hubei, the heart of the firecrackers industry, has been plagued by fiery disasters despite crackdowns by local officials. According to a recent report by Asian-American Free Labor Institute, this officially released report provided far more details than is customary for Chinese authorities.
14 Robin Wright, "World View: The Littlest Victims of Global 'Progress'," Los Angeles Times, January 11, 1994.
15 Printed in South China Morning Post and the Jakarta Daily, April 30, 1993, cited in 1994 AAFLI China Report at 5.
16 "The Boy Scouts of the Working World," Dapeng Bay, (Shenzhen Po An County Cultural and Sports Bureau, June 1993).
17 "Report Says Child Labor Rampant in Chinese City," Associated Press, August 3, 1988.
18 U.S. Merchandise Trade: Exports and General Imports by Country (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, 1993) A90.
19 Dinah Lee and Rose Brady, "Long hard days - at pennies an hour," Business Week (October 31, 1988) 46.
20 "Frontlash Sponsors Toy BoyCott," Ball State Daily News, vol. 10, no. 68 (November 27, 1990).
21 "China Law Bans Child Labor, Bias; Addresses Hours, Minimum Wage," Journal of Commerce, July 7, 1994. According to the U.S. Department of State, in 1991, the State Council issued regulations imposing severe fines, withdrawal of business licenses, or jail for employers who hire laborers under 16 years of age. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993 (U.S. Department of State, February 1994) 619 [hereinafter Country Reports]. It is unclear whether in 1991 a labor law - or a regulation - prohibited the employment of children under sixteen.
22 Country Reports at 619.
23 1994 AAFLI China Report at 4.
24 ILO Conditions of Work Digest, volume 10, 1/1991 (Geneva: International Labor Organization, 1991) Annex I.
25 "The Boy Scouts of the Working World," Dapeng Bay (Shenzhen Po An County Cultural and Sport Bureau, June 1993) [on file].
26 Country Reports at 619.
27 Fanhua writes the number of children not attending school is increasing in China in, Zhen Fanhua, Iron Rice Bowl, Black Rice Bowl, Gold Rice Bowl (Henen's People's Publishing Company, May 1993), cited in 1994 AAFLI China Report at 6; "Heading for Cities and the Good Life," Christian Science Monitor, December 14, 1988.
28 "Tianjin Hosts Forum on Protection of Juveniles," Xinhua News Service, October 12, 1993.
29 "Locked Cage Causes A Tragedy," AFL-CIO Labor Notes, vol. 4, no. 11 (November 1993).