The Dongguan municipal government claims to have launched an investigation into the use of child labour in the city after the Southern Metropolitan Daily reported on 28 April that more than a thousand children had been trafficked from the poverty-stricken region of Liangshan in Sichuan to work in factories across the Pearl River Delta.
The deputy mayor of Dongguan, Li Xiaomei, told a press conference that the government had investigated more than 3,600 companies, employing 450,000 people, in two days. “In the factories we inspected, we did not come across any large-scale use of child labour... There might be some child labour from Liangshan, but at present we just don’t have the evidence.”
However, at the same time, Southern Metropolitan Daily quoted local police sources as saying at least 167 children trafficked from Sichuan had been rescued in the two day operation. While another government official said a team of 20 officials from the Liangshan region had arrived in Dongguan to help repatriate the children.
Deputy Mayor Li promised that the government would crackdown on the use of child labour but its approach thus far has followed a familiar and wholly ineffective pattern; express concern, launch investigation and promise resolute action against law violators. This approach is designed more to show the government in a good light rather than tackle the root causes of the problem of child labour.
It seems highly unlikely, given the proximity of the Olympics, that either the local or central government in Beijing will allow the Dongguan child labour story to reach the proportions as the Shanxi brickyard scandal last year.
CLB believes however it is important that as many people know about this appalling case of child trafficking as possible. There follows our translation of extracts from the Southern Metropolitan Daily’s report of 28 April 2008.
The overseers sought and recruited them from families mired in poverty, with the promise of so-called high wages; some were even abducted and sent off in batches to Dongguan, and from there, distributed by the truckload to factories across the Pearl River Delta.
On unfamiliar soil, these children are often scolded and beaten, and only have one proper meal every few days. Some little girls are even raped. Day after day, they undertake arduous labour, some children think about escape but the road is blocked. The overseers threaten them and warn them that if they try to run away, there will be a price to pay. In their faraway hometowns, their parents are unaware that their sons and daughters have been subjected to such inhumane treatment. In the hometown schools, there are less than ten students remaining in some of the classrooms.
(The people in this report have been given pseudonyms)
Close to 100 children are gathered in front of the mini-mart [in Shipai, Dongguan] carrying their belongings, face-basins and blankets. They are like the shelf items displayed inside the mini-mart standing in horizontal rows, awaiting selection. Three middle-aged men who look like bosses are standing in front of the crowd, from time to time they pat one child’s face, pinch the arm of another, then shout, “Next one!” Most of these children, their faces young and tender, are no more than 1.4 metres tall, a dozen or so appear to be not even ten years old.
A resident, Mr Shao, who has been living here for three years, told us that it was not even peak season; when November and December come around, this place would have truckloads of children coming and going almost every day, “like cabbages being hawked in Dongguan,” he said.
Posing as a garment factory manager from Dongguan, our reporter visited this “child worker market,” and said he would like to select some malleable child workers to work in his factory.
The overseersapproached the reporter. One who called himself Pan Ah-jie pulled out a few children for the reporter to look over. Pan Ah-jie said that these children were physically healthy, and had no problems with even the toughest work. He grabbed the reporter’s hand, intending for the reporter to smack the children’s bodies forcefully, to prove his point. The children obediently stood without moving, their heads bowed, like accepting punishment from a teacher.
After some bargaining, Pan Ah-jie agreed to the children’s hourly work rate of 3.5 yuan. The reporter expressed reservations as to whether or not the childrenreally would be good workers. Pan Ah-jie responded that when the children were brought out from their hometowns in Liangshan, their transport fees and living expenses were covered by the overseers, and their parents had written letters of guarantee, stamped by the village committee’s official seal. “We have absolute management rights over them, and can resort to any measures, you only have to sign a hiring agreement with us, and that’s all.”
Pan Ah-jie then showed the reporter a copy of the hiring agreement, and the reporter noted down the following content: Party A [the factory] needs to guarantee Party B [the trafficker] that the workers clock a total of 300 work hours per month, if Party A could not fulfill the stipulated number of hours for any reason on its part, then Party A will make up for the monetary equivalent for the shortfall of hours. Party A cannot pay the salaries or any other fees directly to any of the workers of Party B; both parties must keep secret the wages paid for temporary work, to avoid unnecessary trouble...
In this so-called agreement, there was no mention of any benefits relating to the workers’ rest days, social security and medical insurance. Pan Ah-Jie explained, “This is exactly our advantage – you can use our workers however you like, how ever many hours a day, in whatever arduous work is required. Concerning illnesses and what-not, we will take care of it, if there are work injuries, the factory can simply make reasonable compensation, there’s nothing to worry about.” He said that the overseers have always enjoyed very good business, “there is healthy demand for our people [child workers] - all the towns in Dongguan use our people.”
Wang, the director of a local employment centre, said that 60 percent of the workers brought to Dongguan by the Liangshan traffickers were child workers. He explained that because these workers hada low asking price, between 2.5 yuan and 3.8 yuan per hour, and did not require any benefits, worked very diligently and could withstand hardship, they were very popular with the factory owners. He estimated that in the town of Shipai alone, there could be 600-700 child labourers from Liangshan working in local factories.
“I will send people over to beat them into submission”
In an investigation over the next few days, our reporter discovered that the few kilometer stretchbetween Shipai multi-goods market and Shipai primary school had become a large underground labour market. Everyday one can see people from the factories arriving to choose their workers, and then big trucks and minibuses arrive, pack the children in tightly and drive off.
There was always one man in the middle of all these transactions. He was a middle-aged man around 1.75 metres tall, with a big silver earring in his left ear. With the help of a 12-year old worker from Liangshan who had just finished work in a factory, the reporter was able to establish contact with this man. He called himself Lei Sheng, and was likewise from Liangshan.
The reporter said to him, “The work in our factory is not hard, it’s mostly taking out stitches and what-not, for the sake of easy management, we intend to get 50 workers around the ages of 14-15.” Lei Sheng appeared to be wary, and he carefully asked the reporter about the factory’s location, name, facilities, staff numbers and order details. After a moment’s hesitation, he began to trust the reporter, and finally said outright that he could provide as many people as the factory required. He further guaranteed that these workers would be absolutely obedient, and would submit to any management. He hinted that if the workers were disobedient, it would just take one phone call, and he would send people over to beat them into submission.
Dongguan is the hub distributing child workers across the delta
When the reporter was discussing the hiring agreement, Lei Sheng had said that if the wageswere acceptable, all that was needed was for both parties to sign the agreement, and he would come to the factory to collect the wages at an appointed time. However, in reality, he could not decide the fate of these children by himself; he needed three other senior overseers to conclude the deal with him. He explained that there was a clear delineation of work: some overseers were solely responsible for recruiting child workers in Liangshan, and transporting them to Dongguan; some were solely responsible for their upkeep and accommodation in Dongguan, and others were responsible for liaising with the illegal local labour agencies or hiring factories.
When our reporters set off for the village of Niu Niu Bei in Meigu county, Liangshan, theyascertained from a “retired” local overseer that the child trafficking network had a secret division of labour within it, with a big boss like Lei Sheng in charge, lesser overseers who bring in “the goods,” as well as assorted hired thugs.
This “retired” overseer said most members of the trafficking network were originally from Liangshan themselves and had worked as migrant workers in their youth. After discovering that they could make money through introducing new workers, they began to entice and deceive children into employment, with the help and guidance of the illegal labour supply agencies. He said that compared to the small-time overseers who worked on their own, this child worker trafficking network was a powerful force. An individual overseer could only bring a few dozen children to Dongguan with no guarantee of sale. This network was so large and well organized, he said, that it could easily meet market demand, and generate profits for all concerned.
Lei Sheng proudly told the reporter that Dongguan was the hub for Liangshan child workers, and that they were dispatched all over the region: “Dongguan, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Huizhou, Jiangmen, our workers are everywhere,” he said. Another senior overseer claimed: “Dongguan Fengmou Electronics Factory has more than 50 people, Dongguan Lanmou Toy Company Limited has few dozen, Huizhou Mouhai Electronics Factory has more than 500 people, over 200 people in Shenzhen will soon complete their contracts.”
Attempting to verify these claims, our reporter contacted several labour supply agencies in Shenzhen, Huizhou and Jiangmen through websites advertising “temporary work networks” and “labour networks.” Posing as a factory owner, our reporter asked specifically for Liangshan child workers. In the phone calls that followed, these agencies told the reporter that “if you want to choose the workers in person, we can arrange for you to go to Dongguan. They are all there.”
How do these hundreds of child workers sent to factories all over the delta avoid Labour Department inspections? “Easy,” one overseer said, “We made them into 18-year olds”.
At one labour market run by an overseer called Chen, our reporter gave out cigarettes one by one to all the children present, winning their goodwill. The reporter took the opportunity to ask them their age, and discovered that among the several dozen “workers” present, there are about 20 girls under the age of 16, the youngest was born in 1998, the oldest was only born in 1993. Among them was a girl whose work tag said her name was Ah Suo, aged 26, but she smiled and said, “These are all fake, the name is fake, the age is fake - I was actually born in 1995, so I’m only 13 years old now.” She pointed to the factory tag of a girl standing next to her, saying, “There, it’s written here that she is 20 years old, but she’s actually 15.” Among the boys, the reporter discovered the youngest was born in 1999, not even 9 years old.
When the reporter expressed surprise, Chen burst into laughter and said this was perfectly normal. He then took out a few residency book templates to show the reporter. He said that Liangshan people don’t like getting their ID cards made, but they always carry their residency books when they go traveling, the children’s residency books are very easy to forge, changing the age to 18 and above is definitely the way to pass inspection, he said.
Reporters: Rao De Juji, Wei Xing, Liu Huilong, Li Ming, Kou Jinming , Shi Xisheng, Cheng Xi, Wei Xuejun. Southern Metropolitan Daily