Child Labor a Thing of the Past? Not in China

Remember learning about the Industrial Revolution? And how it was this amazing movement that changed the world as we knew it? Well, I remember too.

But what is far more vivid in my memory is the implementation of child labor used to keep this “great” movement afloat. I recall images of hundreds of dirt-drenched children standing shoulder-to-shoulder in an assembly line, working their tiny hands on the machinery, with barely any room to move. I remember learning about the horrid working conditions, the suffocating heat of the factories, the squalor. These children, who were a big part in the momentum of the Industrial Revolution, were worked sometimes 70 hours a week just to earn one dollar.

Business that came at the expense of children is what I remember.

If you thought child labor was still a thing of the past, then you are highly mistaken. While in the West laws have since banned the practice (England, in 1878, and the United States in 1938), this is unfortunately not the case in many other parts of the globe. Yes, child labor is still happening.

China, although one of the world’s ever growing power-nations, is one such country. In recent years China has blown up on the world stage; it has become a force to be reckoned with politically, economically, and otherwise. However, the facade of a “modern, developed, powerful” nation is just that – a facade. It is there just enough to hide the dark truth: China is home to one of the countries in the world that still uses child labor.

Chinese law defines a child laborer as any employee being under the age of 16. Chinese news agency Chuncheng Evening News recently reported that “clothing factories in eastern China’s apparel-making hub are using child labour from remote areas of the country to reduce costs.”  According to the news agency, a large number of the more than 1,000 clothing manufacturers in Changshu, Jiangsu province have outsourced cheap labor from Yunnan province, in China’s southwest, including child laborers.

They also spoke of local agents who are hired by the factory owners to find cheap labor – wherever it can be found. Once these agents send over the cheap (and child) laborers, they collect commission as a finder’s fee.

One factory owner said “about 6,000 workers were brought to Changshu from Yunnan last year solely via his connections,” South China Morning Post reported. Another owner said that of the approximately 20 employees he has working for him, five to six would be younger than 16.

Chuncheng Evening News quotes a 15 year-old boy from Wenshan, Yunnan as saying he “works at least 28 days a month, starting work each day at 7.30am and never finishing before 10pm.” The boy went on to disclose that his boss beats him if he “misbehaves”, and that he and his co-workers don’t get paid until the end of the year. If they leave before that, they don’t get paid at all.

Child labor is alive and well. These children are treated little more than prisoners. It is 2016. Child labor should be something I ponder about when thinking back to my elementary school education – something from the way way way past. It was unacceptable and heart wrenching then, and it is even moreso now. The year is 2016. Child labor and child exploitation should not exist.  

About Andrew Burke 145 Articles
Editor-in-Chief Andrew Burke is a lifelong aficionado of all things Chinese. He studied Mandarin while living in Taiwan for six years and now works as a digitization specialist at the Yenching Library, which specializes in Asian books and documents, at Harvard University where he also studies topics related to China, Chinese, Asia and foreign affairs.