China's Use of Child Labor Emerges From the Shadows

LA Times

The deaths of five girls draw attention to the practice, common in struggling rural areas.

By Ching-Ching Ni

Times Staff Writer

BEIXINZHUANG, China — Christmas was just two days away and snow was falling when the five factory girls finished their shift. They'd been working for 12 hours, it was already after 1 a.m., and their dorm was freezing cold. One of them ran out to grab a bucket and some burning coal. The room warmed slightly. They drifted off to sleep.

The next morning, none of them woke up. They had been poisoned by the fumes. But their parents believe at least two of the girls died much more horrible deaths.

They charge that the owner of the canvas-making factory was so impatient to cover up the fact that three of the unconscious workers were underage that he rushed the girls into caskets while some were still alive.

"You see the damage on the corner of the box, the bruises on the side of her head, and the vomit in her hair?" said Jia Haimin, the mother of 14-year-old Wang Yajuan, pointing to pictures of her daughter lying in a cardboard casket stained with vomit and appearing to show evidence of a struggle. "Dead people can't bang their heads against the box. Dead people can't vomit. My child was still alive when they put her in there."

The case, made public months later by New York-based Human Rights in China, highlights this country's often hidden problem of child labor. The Chinese government officially forbids children under 16 from working, but critics say it does little to enforce the law. Statistics are hard to come by, but in some estimates, as many as 10 million school-age children are doing their part to turn China into a low-cost manufacturing powerhouse. China's one-child policy may have produced a generation of spoiled "little emperors" in the nation's relatively wealthy cities, but poverty and lopsided development have driven a disproportionate number of rural children out of the classrooms and into lives of labor.

"We know enough about the problem to know child labor is extremely widespread," said Robin Munro, research director at China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based labor rights organization. "The rural education system in many parts of the countryside is in a state of virtual collapse. There is a high dropout rate of children under 16. They are not just sitting around doing nothing. It is safe to assume most are engaged in some kind of work illegally."

Children, some as young as 4, roam China's relatively prosperous coastal cities, begging on the streets or selling roses deep into the night, apparently victims of schemes that use youngsters as bait. Even infants are being rented out as maternal cover for women selling pirated porn movies on the streets.

Things could get worse before they get better. Parts of southern China's coastal areas are experiencing a sudden labor shortage. Low wages and poor conditions have left adults reluctant to take many of the jobs, and an increasing number would rather stay home on the farm than be exploited in the cities.

That could drive up demand for underage workers. Already, children are victims of kidnappings and contract labor arrangements in which they are forced to work.

In 2000, state media reported that 84 children had been kidnapped from southern China's Guizhou province to work in coastal cities assembling Christmas lights. The youngest was 10. In 2001, an explosion at a rural school in Jiangxi province killed 42 people, most of them third- and fourth-graders who were believed to be making fireworks at the time of the blast.

More recently, labor activists say a growing number of rural schools have contracted out entire classes of students to work in urban factories, supposedly to help defray part of their school costs.

"They call it work study programs," Munro said. "Of course, it's child labor, because the school was earning money from it."

In parts of the country where the local economy is supported by a single cottage industry, such as assembling fireworks or disassembling electronic trash, children work from home.

One area in central Zhejiang province is known for making little tinfoil papers that are used in a ritual to honor the dead. Most of the work is done in homes, and the whole family often chips in.

"It's boring work," said a 12-year-old girl who began helping her mother make the papers when she was 7. The girl, who wasn't identified because of her age, can finish 800 sheets a day. "Children like to play. But my mother always says you can play after you finish your work."

Local authorities have recently begun cracking down on the practice after many of the area's children began testing positive for lead poisoning and skin ailments.

In principle, China is committed to ending child labor. According to the International Labor Organization, China has ratified two ILO conventions on labor practices. Convention 138 forbids minors under 15 from working. Convention 182 bans the worst forms of child labor, including prostitution and slave labor.

But this is a country where making laws is much easier than implementing them. Youths desperate to help their families or simply tired of village life can easily lie about their age and use fake identity papers. Employers eager to hire them for their nimble hands and low cost often don't bother to check.

"This is a society in transition," said Hans van de Glind of the ILO's office in Beijing, who is working with the Chinese government on a pilot project to prevent trafficking of girls for labor exploitation. "The intention is there to make progress."

On the dusty plains of Beixinzhuang village, in northern China's Hebei province, grieving parents blame poverty and lack of opportunity for sending their children to the factories.

"Rural families are not like city people — not all children can afford to go to school. So they work to help alleviate the family's burdens," said Sun Jiangfen, the mother of another 14-year-old, Jia Wanyun, who died in December. "In this village, every family has a child working in a factory. Some just 13."

Sun's daughter had been on the job about a month when the five girls died. She had quit school the previous spring, moving about 35 miles away to an industrial suburb of Shijiazhuang, because her parents needed her help to put her 12-year-old brother through school. Many rural girls drop out because their families can't afford to pay more than one tuition. At about $300 a head, two children in school would be too much for her migrant construction worker father and farmer mother.

The 14-year-old was promised about $100 a year in wages, but she hadn't been paid a penny because she was still considered an apprentice, her mother said. The youngster had toiled 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

Both of Wang Shuangzheng's daughters had worked at the canvas factory spinning yarns. His 21-year-old stopped recently after marrying; his younger daughter, Jia Shiwei, picked up the slack when she was 15 and had been working there two years.

The family last saw her during autumn harvest when she came home to help. Her grandmother suffered a stroke when she learned of her death, and the whole family is still in shock.

"She wanted to go, and I couldn't stop her. My son's getting married and we need the money," said Wang, a farmer who earns less than $500 a year.

Another villager, Wang Shuhai, has been ill for years with a heart condition. He is unable to work, and his family is deep in debt because of his medical expenses.

He is tormented by the thought that his daughter, Wang Yajuan, died because of him. She had called only once after she left for work last fall, he said, and she was aching to come home.

"She said she didn't want to stay there anymore. The work was too hard and the food was terrible," said Wang, holding up a school photo of a fresh-faced little girl with a ponytail. "I told her to stay, because if you leave you wouldn't be paid. The child listened to me."

According to relatives, the girls rarely talked about how hard the conditions were.

"They don't want us to worry," said Jia Shitong, 24, Jia Shiwei's brother. "But think about it — 12 hours a day with no weekends off. How can it not be exhausting?"

The day of their final shift, parents say, the girls ate a quick meal before going to bed. They slept five to a room, sharing two single beds shoved together for maximum warmth.

"It must have been really cold," said Sun, Jia Wanyun's mother. "We all burn coal at home, but we have chimneys that let the smoke out. The children are so young, they probably did not know better to leave a window open. If they did, I'm sure they would rather stay cold."

For a while, the families fought the official ruling that their children had not been buried alive. They persisted even after last month's long-awaited autopsy, which reconfirmed the government's report.

"They ripped my daughter's heart out. The least they can do is give me some justice," said Jia Haimin, Wang Yajuan's mother.

Eventually they accepted a compensation package of about $12,000 each and agreed to drop all charges, according to the families' Beijing lawyer, Li Wusi.

"Sure, there are still lingering doubts about how they died," Li said. "But what choices do their parents have? Farmers have very low status in Chinese society. Farmers' daughters are the lowest of the low."