A first-person account of life as an underage jewellery worker

Editors note: Guangdong Province's Haifeng County is known as the jewellery production centre of China. There, approximately 50,000 tons of semi-precious stones are produced annually. This figure represents around seventy percent of global semi-precious stone production. Most facilities throughout the region employ migrant labour, and child labour is prevalent. Larger factories actually employ recruiters who travel to small villages in other provinces in search of fresh workers. Fees to these recruiters are paid on a per-worker basis, and age is generally not a consideration.

The following interview was conducted in May of 2005, in a small apartment in the vicinity of the factory of one sixteen-year-old worker who began working as a stonecutter when he'd just turned fifteen. To protect the worker's identity, he is referred to throughout as Xiaobing.

CLB: Where are you from, and how old are you?
Xiaobing: I come from a small village in Da County, which is in Sichuan province. I just turned sixteen. I'm small for my age. I first came to work at this factory over a year ago, and every month I send 500 Yuan to my family.

CLB: What were the circumstances surrounding your decision to come to work in Guangdong? Did you come with your parents?
Xiaobing: In 2004, right after the Chinese New Year holiday (early February - ed.), a cousin of mine said he wanted to come to Guangdong to find work at a jewellery factory. I asked him to take me along. Initially I wasn't really thinking of work, I just wanted to get out of my hometown and have some fun in the big city. I'd only graduated from primary school and hadn't continued my studies, so there wasn't much for me to do in my hometown. Basically, I was just looking after the cows all day and was pretty bored. Even after my cousin told me that going to Guangdong wouldn't be much fun, and that I'd have to find work in a factory just to support myself, I still wanted to go. Though I'm an only child, my parents saw that most of the other children in the village had also left town to find work, so they let me leave.

CLB: Had your parents ever been to Guangdong? Weren't they worried about you?
Xiaobing: In my village, children my age usually leave town to find work. Some come with their families, and others with friends. In Haifeng, it isn't a problem to find people from my village. Many boys from my village work in jewellery factories, while girls work in textile factories.

CLB: You say a lot of children come to Guangdong to work. Do most children choose to come, or are they driven by poverty? Do your teachers object?
Xiaobing: Our teachers don't seem to care whether children chose to study or work. Less than half of the pupils in my primary school even went on to secondary school. The other half just went to work. I don't think this is just because of poverty. To work in a factory at the age of fifteen is quite common.

CLB: After your arrival in Guangdong, how did you find the working conditions and living standard? Did you feel homesick?
Xiaobing: Well, it sure wasn't as comfortable as staying at home. I missed my mother's cooking a lot. Nobody here took care of my meals. I had to get used to a long work schedule. Everyday I work anywhere from nine to as much as eleven and a half hours, with only one day off per month on payday. The first few months were the worst, as the chemicals released during the cutting of stones peeled the skin right off my hands. I quickly developed an allergy to this chemical, but slowly I became used to it. After over a year of doing this work, my hands are constantly red and swollen. I have no idea when - or even if - they'll return to normal.

CLB: How did you find your job? Were you aware that it was illegal for a factory worker to hire you before you'd turned sixteen?
Xiaobing: My cousin introduced me to the factory manager. He asked me how old I was, and I told him I was fifteen. He didn't say anything. Myself, I knew it was illegal for him to hire me, but he didn't care so why should I? I wasn't even the youngest there. Another boy I knew was only fourteen.

CLB: Are there ever instances of government officials investigating the factory for child labour? We've heard that often employers will tell underage workers to take a "holiday" during inspections.
Xiaobing: Occasionally an inspector from the health department comes by, but they seem interested only in whether or not workers are wearing cloth face masks (to protect stonecutters from inhaling dust -ed.). They never check anything else, certainly not our ages. So I've never had a reason to hide from them.

CLB: When you began did you receive instruction on proper operation of the machines or any other information on occupational safety?
Xiaobing: Not really. On the first day my boss told me to observe other workers and learn on my own. My technique isn't bad now, but I still occasionally hurt my fingers.

CLB: How is the air quality in the factory? Does management distribute face masks to the workers?
Xiaobing: We get new face masks every second or third day. Some workers find the masks uncomfortable, and wear them only when the health department comes. Workers in other factories have told me all about the dangers of breathing in stone dust, so I wear my mask all the time. Still, when I leave the factory at night I'm covered head to toe with a layer of dust.

CLB: How does your factory handle occupational accidents? Do they cover medical bills, and do you get paid sick leave?
Xiaobing: It's a fact of the business that workers sometimes hurt themselves while cutting stones. The factory has a first aid box, and workers have access to it. But doctors aren't usually called in. As for sick days, well, they aren't paid.

CLB: How many underage workers are in your factory? What do you do with your leisure time?
Xiaobing: There are two or three (out of fifty) other workers my age here. We're pretty good friends. When I have a day off, I visit my cousin or other people from my village who also work in Haifeng. On Chinese New Year break I hung out in Shanewei city, but I haven't had the chance to visit any other cities.

CLB: How much do you earn each month? Do you send money to your parents?
Xiaobing: After accommodations and meals are deducted, I get a bit more than five hundred Yuan per month. As I have no holidays, I don't have any chance to spend this much money. Every month I send my parents five hundred Yuan and give them a call. I don't really tell them about how harsh life here is because I really don't want them to worry.

CLB: Do you have any plans for the future? Do you want to stay here or go back to Sichuan?
Xiaobing: After this year I plan to go home for the Chinese New Year holiday. I haven't seen my family for two years. After the holiday I'll come back to Guangdong, but probably not to this factory. My cousin wants to start his own factory in Shenzhen (another city in Guangdong province - ed.), and he says he'll give me a job. I hope it will be better than working in the stone factory.

CLB: It seems that working here is pretty harsh. If you could do it all over again, would you?
Xiaobing: (after long pause) Yes. It is a difficult life, but the money earned makes it worthwhile. I hope to help my family build a house. Traditionally, in my hometown when someone makes money in another province they return and build a house in the village. I hope to be able to save enough money to do this.

CLB: So what will you do after the house is built?
Xiaobing: By then I'd have spent most of what I've earned, so I suppose I'll come back to Guangdong and look for another job.

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