Child Labour in Shanghai

Where is the Union?

This was the question posed in Chinese newspapers, including the People’s Daily, after yet another shocking case of illegally long working hours, pittance wages and child labour came to light. This time, the factory involved was not located in some remote mountain county far away from labour bureau inspectors and newspaper reporters. It was operating in arguably China’s most modern and outward-looking city -- Shanghai.

The Japanese-owned Shanghai Jingtiao Knitting Company employs over 400 workers, almost all of whom are under the age of 18. According to the Shanghai Municipal Labour and Social Security Bureau, some of these young workers had not even reached the age on 16 and were therefore illegally employed child labourers. Most of the workers were from inland provinces such as Anhui, Sichuan and Henan and the child workers among them had used fake identity cards to secure employment. However, it is the employer’s legal responsibility to check the age of young potential employees before hiring them.

Although the authorities are still carrying out their investigations, questions have already being asked. In a frank online commentary carried by the People’s Daily, accusatory fingers were being pointed at China’s trade unions. The reporter Jian Da asked why the union remained silent when young people were being so obviously exploited? "There can be only two explanations" Jian continues, "either there was no union or it existed in name only."

Conditions at the plant certainly called for union intervention. Employees were paid as little as Rmb 100 per month, inadequately fed and subject to frequent fines. It has yet to be confirmed if the factory had set up a union branch, although the law makes it clear that it certainly ought to have had one. According to local legal statutes, foreign-owned enterprises in Shanghai are obliged to establish a trade union when an enterprise is registered. So what happened? The aforementioned commentary does not hold back:

Why didn’t the union intervene in a case such as this, where a Japanese-owned factory seriously violated national law, employed child labour on a large scale and ruthlessly exploited its workers? If there was no union, why wasn’t one set up? Is this a result of deliberate collusion by government departments or a dereliction of duty by departments responsible for inspection and supervision? Even without ascertaining all the factors involved, this type of case will more than likely reoccur if the law is not used to penalise [those involved].

(HK: SCMP 30/08/01, China: Renmin Wang 29/08/01)

A full translation of the commentary can be found at Official Commentary Criticises ACFTU


Online: 2001-09-12

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