Child Labor in China

One of my favorite sites has launched a newsletter that you can download here (.pdf file). Its most wrenching story deals with child labor in China, which seems to be on the rise.

In March of this year we saw the tragic case of five adolescent girls who appeared to have been poisoned by carbon monoxide smoke from a coal brazier lit in the confines of their cramped factory sleeping quarters. Upon discovering them unconscious, the factory manager did not call for medical assistance, but took them to a crematorium to quickly dispose of their remains. An employee of the crematorium noticed that the bodies of the girls were still warm and their limbs soft, and that no medical certificate accompanied their bodies, so he refused to accept the bodies. In an attempt to hide culpability for the girl’s deaths, the panicked factory manager ordered that the bodies be disposed of immediately.

Sources say that when the girls’ families heard of the matter, they insisted on viewing their daughters’ corpses, but were refused. The factory also insisted that the families make no further inquiries into the girls’ deaths as a condition of paying each family 15,000 Yuan (less than US$2000) in compensation. However, the families still insisted on viewing the corpses, and four days later the factory finally acceded to their request. Upon viewing the corpses, the families were horrified to discover that at least two of the girls, 14-year-old Wang Yajuan and 17-year-old Wang Shimian, appeared to have been alive when they were placed in the coffins. Their faces were caked with vomit and tears, their noses had bled and their necks were swollen. Wang Shimian was found to have kicked through the cardboard lining of her coffin, and her body was twisted in apparent struggle.

Well, at least they had jobs.

The positive side to this story is that the Chinese media are covering it in China, which gives me some cause for optimism. Some.

What makes this story special, and the reason I love CSR, is that the writers explore why child labor in China is flourishing (the educational system plays a big role) and why the government, despite stingent regulations, is mostly unable to stem the problem. So if you don’t mind opening a .pdf file, read it all.

The Discussion: 35 Comments

I think the silence on this thread can only be due to the horror of that story you just repeated.

Thank you reminding me yet again of the existence of csr-asia.

November 14, 2005 @ 10:25 am | Comment

thanks for posting this.

what is behind the cheap and high quality walmart goods is the sweat of hundreds of millions of underprevileged workers in China.

i am not surprised that there are some child labor among these workers. as the labor shortage begin to surface, there is concern that child labor is on the rise.

the local media is perhaps still the best source to monitor the situation.

i wonder if CSR has a lot of volunteer working locally?

i read from an account of a migrant worker, that in her factory the food was the best and the salary were paid in full ONLY on the day international ‘sweatshop’ monitoring group visit the factory. (a couple times a year)

such visits are required by the customers of the factories (the nikes and walmarts, who bend on popular pressure in their home market).
so requiring such action for multinationals do have some effect, at least for the exported and hence set some example of standard in china through competition.

November 14, 2005 @ 11:04 am | Comment

Improper hiring of minors is indeed a significant issue in certain localites in China, and it’s something that should be brought to more attention to the society. I was watching CCTV the other day and it did a documentary special on some families of child laborers in Jiangxi province, and that show moved me to tears. There are just too many petty local businesses and officials who are in league with them who would openly resist laws and openly ignore the Chinese Central government’s warnings.

Recently the Chinese Central Government has put child labors as a top issue on its working meetings’ agenda, but there’s still a tough road ahead in terms of stamping out local resistance and local business interests. Let’s hope for that the Central Government can succesfully tackle this problem, and let’s hope the best of luck on China!

November 14, 2005 @ 12:19 pm | Comment

what the fuck is wrong with some people? no sense of morality, or human decency. animals.

November 14, 2005 @ 4:19 pm | Comment

(sniff, sniff……)

“I was watching CCTV the other days…”

“Let’s hope that the Central government can successfully tackle this….”

I smell another whore for the CCP.

November 14, 2005 @ 5:01 pm | Comment

Also, whenever CCTV pretends to “cover” an embarassing story, you know it’s mostly covering up the most embarassing details. CCTV is a smokescreen. They’re not journalists – they ARE the CCP.

And who’s getting rich from child labor? CCP cadres. Does the CCP ever expose its own widespread crimes? No. So you can bet, that if CCTV is “covering” any of this story, they’re using the “coverage” as a smokescreen to avoid any real kind of exposure.

November 14, 2005 @ 5:15 pm | Comment

Oh and (you CCP whores/trolls) DON”T retort to my above comment by saying “Well how can reporting a story be part of a cover up?”

Simple: You only report a few instances, and thereby imply that the government is “working on the problem” while 99.99999 percent of the cases go unreported, and thus the CCP cadres keep getting rich from child labor.

November 14, 2005 @ 5:17 pm | Comment

Thanks for this, Richard. I’ve been dealing with the problem of child labour in all my classes lately- Geo as part of development and globalisation, and history to show that the issue of slavery is still alive, and in this country. China always helps to provide the most striking examples of inequality and suffering for my students to use. Funny that… didn’t this regime promise a utopia some 55 years ago in exchange for “no questions asked”? As the parents here show, we see what the answers are.

November 14, 2005 @ 6:35 pm | Comment


Thanks for linking to the story. Dennis Cheung did some research on this topic after we (CSR Asia) started finding more and more instances of children working in Chinese factories exporting to the US and EU. Under Chinese law, a child is defined as being below 16; there is another term (juvenile worker) for those between 16 and 18.

I started to talking to others visiting factories a lot (like Liu Kaiming at ICO) and they were all finding the same thing. This has not previously been the case; in fact, I’d often argued that although children are employed in China, the problem was not serious in the export supply chain. But this year has changed my and several others’ views on this.

This summer saw many students being sent down to factories in the Pearl River Delta for their two-month break, some taking home around 200 yuan for their troubles (around 25% of what a legally-aged worker might earn from the same work). The reasons seem complex, but part of it can be attributed to the migrant labour shortage (which is quite pronounced in some parts of China).

It’s good to see the Chinese media (and not just CCTV, by the way) taking this one up, and I think we’re going to see more of it. The increased attention on working conditions for many migrant workers is a start.

And in answer to Sun Bin: we don’t do volunteer work on the issue in China (it’s beyond our capacity to do much of anything on the ground yet on this issue), but we do work with and have contact with hundreds of Western companies sourcing from China and are alerting them to the problem. In future we hope to work with some of them to deal with the issues (which does not, I should add, simply involve them cutting and running).

It’s a complicated problem and much smarter minds than mine have thought about what to do, but for the time being we’re putting our efforts into working with the buyers and retailers in US and EU.

November 14, 2005 @ 7:23 pm | Comment

I share with everyone the horror of such exploitation but I also feel there is another issue behind the scenes.

As Stephen says there are hundreds of Western companies sourcing from these factories. My own gut feelings on many companies that are dashing to make their profits of goods made in China, Indonesia or elsewhere is that there is an indirect complicity and/or tacit avoidance of dealing with these issues. They simply say “That is China’s problem, I do not need to be involved.”

Whether they do not want to jeporadize their profits, or whether they don’t want to offend their relationships with the CCP government or what, I don’t know but I feel there is a lot of “looking the other way” on many people’s parts. I applaud the post, it is time we all did some examination.

November 14, 2005 @ 7:48 pm | Comment

I smell another whore for the CCP.

Ivan, I think that was an unfair. I see nothing in Qiang Gong’s comment that attempted to minimize the problem.

Chris asked:

what the fuck is wrong with some people? no sense of morality, or human decency.

Chris, one (Chinese) word: ma mu. ๐Ÿ™

I’ve been dealing with the problem of child labour in all my classes lately

Kier, I would love to know what kind of school you teach at and how you remain employed!

Judging from the classroom topics you’ve mentioned here, it sounds like you are an unusually candid teacher with unusually open-minded students. I think most teachers who wade into such waters soon find themselves in trouble with school admin, parents, and/or angry students.

I breach some similar topics (last night in a corporate business English class we discussed the One Child Policy and gender imbalance), but I teach at a private language training center, and many of my students are adults. Maybe you could tell us in a general way what kind of teaching you are involved in (no specifics, in light of certain vindictive “flowing water spirits” hereabouts).

Anyway, cool on you!

November 14, 2005 @ 8:00 pm | Comment

Whether they do not want to jeporadize their profits, or whether they don’t want to offend their relationships with the CCP government or what, I don’t know but I feel there is a lot of “looking the other way” on many people’s parts.

Jerome, that’s a huge part of the problem. If you don’t “look the other way” your competition out sources and underprices you, and you end up dropping out of that market, perhaps to the detriment of other factory workers.

It seems that the only solution is to get consumers involved. If people are willing to pay a little more for some kind of meaningful certification that the products they buy are manufactured under reasonable working conditions, foreign companies will have more leverage with their developing-world sources.

How to best inform consumers, and how much more they would be willing to pay are very big questions.

November 14, 2005 @ 8:12 pm | Comment

I think there’s a feeling of “oversensitivity” about “child-laborers” that exist among Western nations.

Western countries are generally more affluent and therefore have a “higher standard of comfort” of their citizens. In American, there are many people who are totally spoiled and cannot even walk for more than 5 minutes without panting! I think what Westerns consider “cruel” that there are “child laborers” in Chian is simply a matter of conflict of values. In China, there’s a saying that “Only hardships create good lives”. Or “Without hitting your children, he’ll not make a good living in the future.” In China, children are simply given a higher workload to train their spirits and physical endurance, and therefore prepare for the real world tomorrow.

Of course I live in America now and there are no places to send my children to labor camps. I often my make son do some chores over the weekends to train him.

November 14, 2005 @ 9:33 pm | Comment

HongXing, welcome back! Yeah, you have a point. What’s wrong with a little child labor? So, five teen girls are buried alive by their boss to hide the fact he was hiring kids — what’s the big fuss about? Asshole.

November 14, 2005 @ 9:37 pm | Comment

Do you have evidence they were buried by their boss? Pleaes don’t tell me that New York Times is evidence. When millions of innocent Iraqi girls were killed by US using chemical weapons, did CNN or New York Times report it (Please don’t tell me you’ve never heard of it before).

Please stop slandering my country and me repeated on this blog! Have respect for yourself and your family! You are an adult, there are more things to live than just eating and sleeping. People need a spirit and principles to live in this world.

November 14, 2005 @ 9:45 pm | Comment

I have huge respect for your country and your people. I have ZERO respect for the beasts who locked these girls in their coffins alive. I have ZERO respect for whoever it was who decided to cover up the AIDS epidemic in Henan province, leading to the deaths on tens of thousands who could have taken menas to protect themselves. I have ZERO respect for a system that allows innocent people to be jailed without a hearing or a fair trial – whether it’s my country, China, Azerbaijian or elsewhere. If you are so respectful of the Chinese, why aren’t you furious and outraged about Chinese children being exploited for child labor?

November 14, 2005 @ 9:51 pm | Comment

When millions of innocent Iraqi girls were killed by US using chemical weapons, did CNN or New York Times report it (Please don’t tell me you’ve never heard of it before).

Source? I have never heard of this before. Millions of Iraqi girls killed by US chemical weapons? I strongly suspect you are making that up.

November 14, 2005 @ 9:54 pm | Comment

Jerome, Shanghai Slim,
I think that more and more Western companies are becoming aware of corporate social responsiblity issues, after all, isn’t that what Dr Frost and his group are doing?
This spring when I was back in the UK I was able to hear a BBC radio 4 special on this issue where representatives from companies such as The Gap were being put on the spot to explain how they ensure their products are not produced in sweatshops or by child labourers.
Also, my friend asked me for some advice when he was translating a report for his company. His factory was preparing to sign an important contract with a very large UK company, but before they would sign the UK company insisted on a full inspection of the factory – not just of the production standards, but also of the work and welfare conditions of the factory employees. (The British company criticized the Chinese factory for the following items: only two fire extinguishers in each workshop instead of three, Chinese factory claimed that workers have eight days free per month when in reality they have four days, and some details about how the workers receive their pay.)

Consumer pressure is starting to work. The important thing now is that we don’t give up.

November 14, 2005 @ 10:05 pm | Comment

Something like this actually happened in a factory in the city of York (England) in the mid 1800s. For years after the factory shut down, local people would report seeing/hearing the ghosts of children (on the former site of the factory/residence, ie the children lived on site), when regular residential houses were built over the site.

Some years later, finally, when the child-laborers’ workhouse was demolished, several children’s corpses were found to have been buried in secret. (It wasn’t precisely a “workhouse” – that’s a technical term for an obsolete social program – but an orphanage run by a greedy bastard who worked the orphans to death.)

As for HongXing saying we’re “oversensitive” about these kinds of atrocities: HongXing, you make me nauseous. You’re a typical privileged Chinese hypocrite. If you think it’s healthier for children to have “discipline”, go back to China and send your child to work in a sweatshop.

Much as I despise Mao, the likes of HongXing make me think Mao had a good point about sending privileged cadres to do hard labor. Only problem is, he sent too many decent people off as well. But it’s disgusting to see so many wealthy, privileged “Communists” taking such a casual attitude toward the sufferings of the working class.

November 14, 2005 @ 11:21 pm | Comment


Yes I do see many parallels between today’s China and Early Industrial Age England. England was rife with abuses of labor in the 1800s; that’s what most of Dickens’ works were about – AND, irony of ironies, that was what inspired Marx and Engels to write the Communist Manifesto.

Marxism began with Marx and Engels in England, being horrified by the exploitation of English workers. And now “Communist” China is treating its workers in the same ways which provoked Marx and Engels to start the Communist movement.

The problem is: Communist doesn’t work. History has proved that. What DOES work, and what DID work to improve the conditions of English workers, is liberal democracy.
What DOES work, is the freedom for some reformers to speak out against abuses of labor, AND an elected government which is responsive to the complaints of the common people.

THAT is what improved the conditions of workers in England. Liberal democracy did it.

November 14, 2005 @ 11:30 pm | Comment

AND (well HongXing really pissed me off):

It’s bullshit for the Communist to say that THEY “represent” the interests of the workers. (Although, today, the CCP claims to represent ALL classes. Especially the wealthy class, of course. How convenient.)

It’s a lie, it always has been a lie, for the Communists to say that ONLY THEY can represent the workers, as opposed to upper class leaders in a liberal democracy. Two examples:

1. Winston Churchill – who changed parties more than once; he was a “Liberal” when he was younger, and a “Conservative” later, and I forget how many times he changed parties – anyway, Churchill was the one who promoted Britain’s Workers’ Compensation Act. (Before America ever had one.) Churchill was an aristocrat, but he did more for the workers of England than any Communists ever did for any workers, anywhere.

2. President FDR, American patrician, terribly rich, of old family. Roosevelt pushed through more “socialist” legislation, to protect workers, than any other President in history.

Communism doesn’t help workers. Liberal democracy does. The “dictatorship of the Proletariat” is just a lie.

November 14, 2005 @ 11:38 pm | Comment

Hongxing wrote: “I think there’s a feeling of “oversensitivity” about “child-laborers” that exist among Western nations.”

I won’t make any comment on this except to say that it is Chinese law itself that stipulates children under the age of 16 should not be employed, and that if they are between 16 and 18 they should only be employed under special conditions (see Articles 15, 58, 64 and 65 from China’s Labour Law here on these issues). Note also that women are afforded special protection under law, too.

dishuiguanyin: Yes, more and more buyers and retailers (and not just from the West – I was in Japan last week talking to managers from a host of large companies about CSR, and they were very receptive) are altering their behaviour with regard to sourcing from factories offshore. There are still many issues to be resolved, and CSR is not going to solve them all, but I am optimisitic that we’re at least heading in the right direction.

One of the real issues now is what to do in the absence of consumer and other pressure on companies (i.e., how to encourage companies in China producing for the domestic market where there is little to no pressure on producers over labour or environmental issues). All CSR Asia can do at the moment is try to put as much information online as possible to help people make informed decisions, and work with companies that are trying to improve what happens in their supply chains. Whilst it’s true that some companies don’t care very much, a growing number care very much indeed (if only from a reputational risk perspective). I don’t know of any company that has this perfect (and the best ones freely admit they don’t), but there are many more trying than even three years ago, let alone a decade.

I’m grateful to Richard for picking up on the story and helping us to widen the audience. Hopefully people checking on companies in their supply chains will also take note and start thinking of strategies to deal with factories in which they find them. Its not something I believe is easily solved (do you cut contracts [workers lose jobs], build schools [shouldn’t the government do that?], pay parents to keep the children at home [does that really help?] etc).

Frankly, I think people should begin by talking to child workers themselves and ask what they want. The answers may be surprising.

November 15, 2005 @ 12:00 am | Comment

Of course I live in America now and there are no places to send my children to labor camps. I often my make son do some chores over the weekends to train him.

Hongxing/ZT, there is a big, huge, Grand Canyon of a difference between slaving away for 16 hours every day in some wretched sweatshop under deplorable conditions just to earn the pittance it takes to go to school or sustain livelihood, and taking out the garbage on a lazy Sunday afternoon for a bit of pocket money.

You are a dad? What if those were your girls, poisoned by carbon monoxide and hastily buried, perhaps alive? Tell me the words “cultural oversensitivity” stick a little, just a little, in your craw.

I’m surprised there are teachers brokering in the child labour trade, though I’d guess most are between a rock and a hard place. I also wonder how the underage migrant worker situation is at China’s other economic hubs, i.e. the Yangzi delta region.

And thank you, Mr. Frost. You guys do admirable work with monitoring corporate responsibility and promoting consumer awarness. Respect.

November 15, 2005 @ 12:58 am | Comment

Dish, re The Gap, I worked there for over a decade, and I honestly felt that that corporation really tried to do the right thing on this, and many other issues. I have a very, very high regard for that company’s management, and the family who founded it. The are real San Franciscans in the best sense of the word (Bill O’Reilly, go Cheney yourself).

As for HongXing, any father who would try to excuse the live burial of someone else’s child is, well, not worth addressing.

November 15, 2005 @ 2:41 am | Comment

Ivan said,

“Yes I do see many parallels between today’s China and Early Industrial Age England. England was rife with abuses of labor in the 1800s; that’s what most of Dickens’ works were about….

THAT is what improved the conditions of workers in England. Liberal democracy did it.”

you made a good point here, ivan.
the problem is, some in china (borrowing old marxist theory) believe this is an inevitable transition taken for industrialization.

i think liberal democracy can definitely help, (media as check and balance, rule of law, clean and effecient government, etc. some related to liberal dem, some not neccessarily). economic affordability is also one reason (if the parents are not desperate for $, they won’t have to send away their children to the factories)
example: this won’t happen in singapore, and singapore is not the ideal lib dem model state.

November 16, 2005 @ 9:40 pm | Comment

Those who exploit child labour are nasty animals! they must be punished if caught.
Child labour is a norm in poor countries and exploitation is inevitable but I’m sure there are some responsible employers who take more care of the young workers. I cannot see how democracy can prevent child labour exploitation. the only thing that work is to ensure families are self sufficient economically and children are given free eduction/healthcare, only then parent would be able to choose to send their kids to school instead of to work. I worked full time willingly when i was 14 years old in Hongkong in the 80s to help my family financially.
child exploitation is an issue that occurs in every societies not just in communist China. I believe the issue can only be resolved by addressing the poverty issue in the developing countries!

November 25, 2005 @ 8:04 pm | Comment

this is terrible. it should not occur anywhere. chiledren need to grow up imn a clean sanitary enviornment and not have to worry about getting killed by machineary or hazrdous chemials. human trafficing is also a big issue. i think human trafficing is the most terrible kind of chid labor. it is abuse, harmful, and agianst the law.

December 19, 2005 @ 10:18 am | Comment

i’am doing a research about child labor in china is for english 10 and iwas wondering if you guys could send me some information about what is going on. you know some cases about child labor in china. please help me and i want to do my best in this project write me back at my email ok. and together we are gone stop this

May 12, 2006 @ 3:11 pm | Comment

if kids are working so hard to support their families, what are the parents doing? drinking?!

May 15, 2006 @ 11:25 am | Comment

What is wrong wit people? its just so cruel, i mean you friggin’ bury people alive, and then you say they were dead. that guy, i want to cut off his penis for that

May 15, 2006 @ 5:15 pm | Comment

this is really sad, and should be pressed forward into our society, so that people can see what is happening in these other countrys

May 31, 2006 @ 1:59 pm | Comment

I am just horrified by the news.I am an Indian and a citizen of Kolkata- capital city of a state of India.In India there are child labours and the exploitation as well. But there is media , in any way the government or any employer can’t keep secracy due to them accept in West Bengal .West Bengal – a state rulled by Communist Party , it captured everything- the administration, police ,the intelligentia and even the local judges by virtue of prize and threat.To the communist party-lead government China is a dream-land, and so far as the devolopement is concerned China is their model, and like China, rights of labour are violated under the kind leadership of Communist Party. All the party leaders are Maffia-King and have organised criminal groups. Female children of this state are just important commodity of all-India Sex Market .Nearly 20 percent of the prostitutes of Indian Sex-Market comes from this state,and the bussines runs with collaboration of Communist Party leaders,they are ministers of this state,members of Lagislature Assembly or even Parliament. The employers or the promoters here are fearless under the blessing of Communist Party leaders .Like in China , in West Bengal they can do anything they like.No media here have any liberty like they enjoy in the other 25 states of India .The news of five female children shows me the truth that Communist government in all part of the world are all the same.May Marx save us.

June 3, 2006 @ 12:50 pm | Comment

Thanks for a lot of information. And I want to ask You one question. I come to Peking every simestre, because am studying here. How start and develop my bussines in China? I wanna listen your advice about this question. Please ask me, because this question important for me now.

August 14, 2006 @ 7:01 am | Comment


I would contact people at CSR Asia and CSR China for information. Also I’d check out CRIN: China. Actually, come to think of it, go to CRIN first.

October 20, 2006 @ 12:02 am | Comment

the sad part is that nobody does something about it. we sit in our chairs safe in our homes,and feel pitty. but do we do something about this?

i do agree with you other people that have comented. these people are sick.

October 25, 2006 @ 3:24 am | Comment

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