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Mine Explosion Uncovers Hidden Child Labor in China

A series of serious mining accidents in China has recently brought mining safety into the spotlight. In several cases, casualties have been in the hundreds. As the accidents were being exposed, people shockingly discovered that child laborers were among the casualties.

On November 20, 2004, an accidental fire in an iron ore mine in Shahe City, Hebei Province, in Central China engulfed 116 mining workers. What caught the reporter’s attention among the workers being rescued was a young coal miner named Zhou Chengping, who was lying in the hospital bed with tubing in his arm and nose. Zhou was younger than 15 years old when he was recommended to the mine owner by one of his relatives. No one would have believed from his childish face that he had already been working in mines for two years, without also looking at his rough hands full of thick calluses.

Zhou is not the sole child laborer in the area. The reporter has learned that there are over 100 underaged workers working in the iron and coal mines in the nearby area, including those who are less than 16 years old. These children have no professional skills in mining, so they are asked to do simple work such as drive carts or pump water with low pay but heavy physical requirements.

As China rapidly develops its manufacturing base due to its seemingly limitless source for cheap labor, school-aged children from poor families, mainly from the countryside, are found in the labor pools. Despite the Child Labor Laws issued by the State Department of China on October 16, 2002, forbidding hiring children under the age of 16, the number of child laborers in China continues to grow. A review of recent media reports reveals that child labor has been found in the export of fireworks, garments or textiles, and toys, as well as mining and food industries.

Lower cost for child labor is the main reason for business owners to defy the law. Children are usually forced to work long hours with low pay in very dangerous conditions. The Sun (a Hong Kong based newspaper) reported on July 20, 2004, that the number of garment shops has grown rapidly in Huaifang Village, Fengtai District, Beijing, since 1999. Currently there are hundreds of these kinds of shops, which employ teenage child laborers. Among those hired teenagers, the youngest worker is only 10 years old, earning a salary as low as 100 yuan (US $12) per month. These cheap child laborers who can work day and night are the most valuable to their employers. They work 17 hours a day earning only 100 yuan per month, while they would bring 1,800 yuan (US $220) in income for their employers.

To hide from the government inspectors, these children must sleep in the morning and start working right after they get up at noon until five o’clock the next morning, according to He, a shop owner. Children are required to do heavy work not suitable for their ages and physical conditions all year long. To them, their biggest wish is “to sleep and to go home,” but they are only allowed to go home once a year during the Chinese Lunar New Year.

Zhenzhou Evening News revealed in a recent report that child laborers were found in a hot pepper manufacturing company in Zhengzhou City, Henan Province. There were 60 workers busy working in a shop full of the hot pepper mixed with other strange odors. One third of the 60 workers looked very young even though all of them claimed that they were over 16 years old. Later one little girl told the reporter that their manager made them say they are 16. She said they are required to work 15 to 16 hours a day. Their hands were corroded and their eyes were irritated to the point of being red.

Lack of strict law enforcement also played a major role in the rapid growth of child labor. In the case of the garment shops in Fengtai District outside Beijing, where a few thousand child laborers were employed, government inspectors only inspected them once, but none of them were fined in the past few years. Every shop owner knows that even if they were caught, the village’s officials would cover it for them as long as they pay 200 yuan (US$24)—an annual village administration fee.

The child laborers mostly come from the poor families in the countryside. Because their parents cannot afford the expenses of school, these children usually start heavy labor at a much younger age than their peers in order to support the family. Parents would rather have the children learn more skills to have a better future than stay at home. Zhou, the survivor of the mining accident, has never attended school and had to endure a 16-hour workload per day in order to earn money to send back to his family. Zhou Rong, a village girl from Tienmen City, Hubei Province, has worked in the garment factory in Fengtai for three years since the age of 11. She and her brother, and eight other children from the same village, work day and night in a factory the size of 30 square meters. She dares not ask for schooling since she knows her family is very poor. “My mommy said that I can make money and learn craftsmanship if I work here. Otherwise I have nothing to do if I stay home,” she told the reporter.

Child labor was found almost everywhere across the country, from big cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai, to small towns as well as rural areas. So far there are no formal figures on child labor from the Chinese government. Getting accurate information from China is unlikely due to China’s political system and lack of Chinese non-governmental organizations active in this area. Some China-watchers infer growing child labor problems in China based on high dropout rates from school. Some speculated that there could be at least 5 million child workers in China.

Child labor not only deprives children of their normal childhood development and education, but it also causes severe physical injury and sometimes death due to harsh and dangerous working conditions. In March 2001, a serious blast occurred in a school building in Jiangxi Province, which killed 41 children and injured 30 others. Investigators found that the school children had been forced by their teachers to work for slave wages making firecrackers.

Such casualties have not prevented the influx of underage children from entering the child labor market. As long as the poverty in the countryside continues, it is not realistic to expect a major improvement regarding child labor. When the reporter asked Zhou (the survivor of the Shahe mine incident) what he would do after recovery, he said, “Of course I will go back to the mine; I will soon start the mining job.” Facing the reporter’s suspicion, he responded with an innocent smile, “I still need to make money to get married, I can have a wife if I have money; I am not afraid to die!”

Lukun Yu is a financial analyst based in New York.