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An Introduction to the History of Child Labour in China

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Child Labour in China

Common conjecture has it that child labour was more or less wiped out in post-liberation China and that its reappearance is directly linked to the increased role of private enterprise in the Chinese economy. It was well known that the use of child labour was widespread before the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took power in 1949. The use of children was a fundamental part of China’s first attempts to industrialize. The following description of a Tianjin cotton mill is the early 1930’s illustrates this: “Children labored in every department: boys in the departments where male adults predominated, girls in the women’s department. In the spinning mills they were most often put to work at piecing…. In the weaving mill they were assigned to heddling, or threading the warp along a set of parallel cords in the loom. Both these jobs require excellent eyesight, dexterity and concentration.” (1)

Once the CCP took power in 1949, the new government set about reforming the education system and getting children out of the workplace and back into school. Its success in the reduction of child labour in China was significant. But it is hard to measure how significant and successful it was because of government propaganda at that time claimed near total success, but independent figures are unavailable.

Nonetheless, the fact that child labour is now clearly back is largely accepted both inside and outside China, even if it’s extent remains mostly unmeasured. It seems that officials with the Ministry of Labour and Social Security (MOLSS) are not acknowledging the existence of the problem. According to a article published in Hong Kong, officials at the MOLSS “claim that no government figures are available because child labour is not a problem in China.” (2)

China’s minimum age for legal employment is 16 years old. Many of the child who get jobs in China’s coastal regions do so on the basis of fake, borrowed or stolen ID cards. Although China has plenty of laws and regulations that are in place to deal with child labour, many employers are prepared to ignore them in order to meet production deadlines. A survey looking into the use of fake ID cards to get work, conducted by the labour bureau in Nanhai City, Guangdong province found that more than 80% of employers felt that their job was to maintain production and that fake ID cards were not their concern as long as production deadlines were met. (3)

The United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) stresses, reliable statistics are an essential tool that governments must have if they are going to take child labour seriously. Legislation on it’s own will have little effect unless it is backed up by government or NGO programs that effectively target the areas most effected. One of the chief problems in China is the lack of independent NGOs and trade unions that can effectively monitor the problem.

Most employers in China do not use child labour. The logic of competitive

production with a poorly regulated labour market and widespread corruption has resulted in some employers turning to child labour as a way of reducing costs of production. Workers’ daily quoted an employer as saying: “For every piece produced by an adult worker, I have to pay one dollar while I only have to pay a child 70 cents. Children’s food and lodging costs are also cheaper.”. (4)

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