An area in southern China renowned as a major export hub is at the center of a child labor scandal after more than 1,000 children were found toiling away in factories.
The children, aged from nine to 16, worked long hours in factories for about US$0.35 an hour, the state-run China Daily and other media said yesterday, in echoes of a brick kiln slavery ring that made world headlines last year.
The news came as workers in communist-ruled China prepared to celebrate May 1, Labor Day, as a national holiday.
But the latest incident showed that labor abuse remained a major problem in China, where many poor people remain vulnerable to exploitation despite the country’s phenomenal economic growth, a workers’ rights group said.
“They [labor scandals] get exposed from time to time. If they become a big story, then the government usually promises to crack down and investigate,” said Geoffrey Crothall of the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin.
“But the underlying problems that give rise to these incidents just continue. The situation never seems to improve noticeably in terms of poverty relief and in terms of keeping kids in school,” he said.
Police have so far rescued 167 children in Dongguan, one of the cities at the center of the latest scandal, the Hong Kong-based Wen Wei Po newspaper said.
The China Daily carried a photo of a young girl crying after emerging from her place of work in Dongguan, which has sought for many years to attract foreign investment and is an export hub.
The children were also found working in factories in nearby Shenzhen and Huizhou, which are also key to Chinese exports, the China Daily said.
Authorities have set up a task force to rescue all the other children, local authorities in Dongguan were quoted as saying.
“Our labor enforcement and trade union will investigate all companies in the town, the labor market and agencies,” the China Daily quoted Wang Yongquan, a spokesman for Shipai town in Dongguan, as saying.
An underground organization had lured the children from Liangshan, a poor farming area in Sichuan province thousands of kilometers away, the China Daily said.
The factories paid the children between 2.5 yuan and 3.8 yuan (US$0.35 and US$0.55) an hour.
The Southern Metropolis Newspaper, the first to report the scandal, quoted a factory foreman as saying that all the children were passed off as 18 to pass the labor department’s inspections.
“We have absolute management control over them — we can adopt any measure,” another foreman named Pan Ajie told the newspaper’s reporter before the crackdown began.