Child labor in clothing sweatshops exposes weak law enforcement

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2016/11/28 19:38:39

A news video taken undercover at a factory last week revealed how common child laborers are in Chinese clothing factories and the black market chain behind this phenomena. After going viral, it has led to discussions on whether there should be a change in regulations regarding underage work and the aftermath.

Children assemble necklaces at a pearl factory in Dongguan, Guangdong Province. Photo: CFP

Children assemble necklaces at a pearl factory in Dongguan, Guangdong Province. Photo: CFP

In a dimly lit room, a group of workers were busy toiling at their sewing machines. Their heads were bowed, their fingers busy untangling threads, fixing zippers or stapling buttons onto shirts.

The workers at the factory all had immature faces. Some had dyed hair, some skinny arms and some had light fuzz growing on their chins. Most of the workers were in fact teenagers; many were under 16, the legal minimum age of employment in China.

This scene was revealed in a recent clip by online news portal Pear Video, in which two reporters went undercover in a factory in Changshu, East China's Jiangsu Province to shoot footage and interviews with workers, employers and agents to reveal a vast network of black market deals that stretches across half the country. 

A video grab shows a teenager working in a clothes factory in Changshu, Jiangsu Province during an undercover interview by Pear Video. Photo: Pear Video

A video grab shows a teenager working in a clothes factory in Changshu, Jiangsu Province during an undercover interview by Pear Video. Photo: Pear Video

Black market chain

Starting in September, videographers Han and Zhou went around factories in Changshu trying to get a job.

Changshu is a city of clothing manufacturers. In every corner of the city, you can find a small workshop that has just a few machines and workers in a rented house.

They eventually chose a workshop that made jackets and had lots of young-looking faces among its staff. It was a three-story house and the boss rented two of the floors, one for work and one as a dormitory. Han's job was to sew buttons on jackets every day and his partner was Xiaoxiong (pseudonym), a 15-year-old boy of Miao ethnicity, who had already worked there for over six months.

There were about 20 workers in the factory, three of them were 15, the rest were between 16 to 18 years old.

If the pair didn't work there themselves, they never would've imagined how difficult this job could be, Zhou wrote in a story published in Pear Video's WeChat account. Han lived in a 10-person dormitory that had no bathroom. If he needed to relieve himself, he had to walk to the public toilet in the village. There was no hot water to shower.

According to the video, they got up at 7:30 am every day, started working as soon as they finish brushing their teeth and didn't stop till late in the night, doing a total of more than 15 hours of work every day. Han recounted to Beijing Time Media Group he had to fix buttons and zippers on 720 jackets per day. In such an atmosphere, Han had to hurry every time he went to the bathroom.

"[The boss] told me 300 shirts a day to begin with, then he raised it to 500, then to 600 in August. I told him I can't do any more, he said he won't add anymore, but now it's 720," Xiaoxiong says in the video.

Long working hours don't translate to high salaries. An anonymous factory owner said in the video that "They are from Yunnan, they are cheap, only about 2,000 yuan ($290) a month." He added, "I've got a 16-year-old worker, he's been with me for three years."

The boss provided only lunch and dinner and the workers needed to buy their own breakfast. During mealtimes, the boys squatted on sidewalks holding bowls in their hands and gulping down their food, as if the whips of their boss were at their back.

They rested on small, iron-framed hardboard beds at night. There were only eight beds for 10 workers so two had to share a bed. But most were small-boned boys so it was manageable, Han told Beijing Time. The room only had a small window and reeked of damp, and sheets and pillows were blackened with dirt.

Most of the children in the video were from Southwest China's Yunnan Province, recruited from small villages in mountainous regions. It has become a mature, frequently exercised black market chain.

In a follow-up video shot in Yunnan, an agent based in the provincial capital Kunming proudly told Pear Video, "If you want young workers, we can guarantee you young workers… of course you have to use young workers in a clothing factory, the young ones do a better job."

The workers weren't paid until the end of the year. If anyone wanted to leave, the boss would take away his ID card, bank card and cell phone, and even use violence to force him to stay.


A larger problem

But most of the time, the children didn't want to go back as they feel they have no future with school anyway.

Han asked many of his coworkers about going to school, and the answer was pretty much the same each time, just sarcastic comments about how education can change lives, Zhou wrote. Many said that they can't pass exams and get into universities even if they tried, let alone find jobs after graduation, so they might as well start earning money now.

When the first video came out, the Changshu government reacted quickly and went on a crackdown to shut down most of the factories employing illegal workers, sparking discussion.

Hu Chunchun of the Jinlin Evening News had a lot of trouble with the video, and wrote an article saying Pear Video was "taking the moral high ground to judge the Changshu child laborers, without thinking about what they really need, is it just an order from the government telling them to all go home?"

Some also started discussing whether the government should alter the law and provide better regulations for underage workers, instead of just shutting down workshops in general, because the workers would just go to other illegal workshops.

Wang Jiangsong, a professor at the Beijing-based China Institute of Industrial Relations, told the Global Times there's no room for discussion as to whether the government should act on this issue.

"It's in Chinese labor law that you cannot employ children under 16. You can employ teenagers aged 16 to 18, but only in limited capacities and working hours. Working 15 hours a day like in the video is definitely illegal," he said.

At the same time, it can be seen from the follow-up video and articles from other media outlets that there's a larger problem at hand.

One follow-up video was shot in a village of 80 families, of which more than 20 have all migrated to work, including their teenage children.

A villager said in the video that locals usually earn about 10,000 yuan a year farming corn and chili peppers, while finding work in the city brings about 40,000 yuan, so many envy people that find work outside.

The local culture is also one that doesn't care for education. That goes both for families who are too poor, as well as those who can afford to send their children to school.

A 14-year-old boy that goes by the pseudonym Xiaowen said in the video he has just finished his first year of middle school, but he doesn't want any further education. He plans to find some work outside after Spring Festival next year.

A middle school teacher said she loses most of her students during second year of school, 20 students out of a 50-person class leave.

"When they (my friends) are at home, I feel they're not cool at all, but once they come back after working outside, they're a different person, they have a different hairstyle… they just look awesome," Xiaowen told Pear Video.

This is a common occurrence in poverty-stricken areas. A reporter from China Youth Daily visited an ethnic minority village in Southwest China's Guizhou Province and found one of the child workers rescued in the Changshu incident, who went back to digging up a fungus prized for its medical properties and selling it for 1.5 yuan apiece.

She currently lives with her grandmother and two sisters. The family owns practically nothing. They have more than 30,000 yuan of debt and count on everyone in the family to work. When agents come scouting for young workers, the parents only care about how much money they get paid and whether they have someone to protect their safety.

Shi Fumao, labor department director at Zhicheng Public Interest Lawyers, told the Global Times he thinks all the necessary laws are in place concerning this issue. There are laws regulating how old workers should be as well as laws saying children must go to school, but the problem right now is these laws aren't being implemented.

"For example, if children are dropping out of middle school to go to work, then local education authorities at the township  level should be alerted, where are these children going, why aren't they finishing school? They should have the ability to track them and make sure they receive a basic education," Shi said.

At the same time, more publicity is needed to make sure villagers understand the law and the consequences of breaching it, Shi said.

But in the imminent future, no discussion or policy can change these children's situation.

"My older sister is in high school and she costs so much. If I also go to school, my parents need to pay for two … at least I can save some money for her," Xiaowen said to Pear Video.

Agencies contributed to this story

Newspaper headline: Toiling teens

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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