On 24 June 2007, Liang Xiaowen, a 16 year-old student from Maoming in southwest Guangdong, got on a bus to China's manufacturing heartland, Dongguan. Xiaowen's father was seriously ill and suffered from long-term paralysis, and her mother could only earn 200 yuan a month to support the entire family. Xiaowen had been told by a representative of Maoming's South China Electrical Engineering College that she could earn 900 yuan a month working during the summer break at a factory in Dongguan. It seemed like an excellent opportunity to earn some extra money for her family and pay for next year's school fees, however as soon as Xiaowen got on the bus, reality began to dawn.
Xiaowen and the 30 other students traveling to Dongguan were told by the teachers who recruited them that they would have to pay a total of 165 yuan each in transport and administrative fees. According to a report in Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper, the students received no compensation for their expenses on arrival at the Pusheng Plastics Factory in Dongguan, but were immediately put to work on 11 hour shifts with no respite at the weekends. Many children developed colds, fevers and sore throats. Xiaowen's symptoms were the most severe; after three days of a high fever she started to lose consciousness and her body went into convulsions. The local hospital diagnosed the problem as viral encephalitis. Liang Xiaowen died on 27 July.
The factory management later denied Xiaowen's death was work related, blaming an outbreak of flu at the factory, and claiming that the school organizing the student workers was ultimately responsible for their welfare. The South China Electrical Engineering College, which had recruited a total of 300 students to work in factories in Dongguan and Shenzhen over the summer vacation, likewise denied any responsibility for her death, saying it was an unfortunate accident.
Liang Xiaowen's death illuminates the precarious position many students are placed in each year when they enroll in "summer work" (shuqigong) or "work-study" (qingong jianxue) programmes. Many work-study programmes can be beneficial, especially to college and university students, indeed several university students have posted glowing testimonials to their programmes in blogs and on websites; however there is a growing trend for students (especially younger, more vulnerable students) to be treated merely as commodities exchanged between schools in desperate need of funds and factories in need of short-term, low-cost labour. The students have no say in the terms and conditions of their employment and have little or no protection from abusive work practices because labour officials assume the students are the responsibility of the education department, while education officials assume that the labour bureaus should be responsible for the students' welfare. Liang Xiaowen died, not only because she contracted encephalitis, but because she was weakened after being forced to work 11 hours a day and no one thought it was their responsibility to provide her with proper medical care when she first fell ill.
No one seems to care
Liang Xiaowen's death clearly illustrates the lack of concern for the students' welfare both from employers and schools, as well as the local government officials who should be protecting the students. Indeed many factory owners employing school students over the summer break openly defend the system; "This internship is a form of cooperation between our company and the school, or rather with Yilong County. I've been to that county myself and I found the local people were very poor, so this initiative of having students work here is a win-win strategy for both of us." Yuan Guangyao, the deputy manager of a factory in Dongguan at which school students from Yilong County in Sichuan worked 14 hour shifts, told the International Herald Tribune in June this year. The relationship may well have benefited this factory and the school but it clearly did not benefit the students many whom were forced to work overtime and had their wages withheld. Those who tried to quit the programme had no way of telephoning home or paying for their own transport back to Sichuan, the IHT reported.
In other cases, factories, schools and local authorities have not only demonstrated a lack of concern for the welfare of "summer work" students, they have actively colluded to conceal their illegal use of underage labour. In the summer of 2006, the Wuzhouxing canning and food processing factory in Ningbo, allegedly recruited around 200 school students to work as grape peelers over the vacation period. The students were told they would only have to work eight or nine hours a day, the factory would provide food and lodging and pay them between 750 yuan and 1,300 yuan a month. When the students, mostly middle-school students from Henan and Anhui, arrived at the canning factory, their household registration cards were confiscated and they were registered in the company books as 18 years old. The students were forced to work for long shifts under such harsh conditions that many sustained injuries to their hands and legs.
Blatant collusion between schools and factories
The factory employed two men to locate and recruit student workers, and they in turn hired Wang Xiumin, a middle-school teacher in rural Henan, to recruit his students. For each of the 84 students Wang recruited he received 100 yuan. The two main recruiters allegedly asked the Wang's village council and the school administrators to provide the students with fake IDs but it is unclear to what extent this request was acted upon.
The local labour bureau and the branch of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions in Ningbo were completely unaware of the situation at Wuzhouxing until the story was exposed by a journalist from Law and Life magazine. More than 100 children were freed and returned to their parents but when reporter again visited the factory three days later he discovered several children still working there. Some children who refused to leave were forcibly evicted by factory security guards and put on buses home. Many parents reported more than a month later that they were still waiting for their children to return.
In the northwestern region of Xinjiang, the institutionalized abuse of the work-study programme on state-run cotton farms was revealed in a report by Radio Free Asia in 2005. School children as young as 12 years old had been shipped off to help with the annual cotton harvest for the previous 15 years, one middle school teacher told RFA. There were strict guidelines designed to protect the students but parents and teachers said these guidelines were regularly ignored and students had to work hauling heavy bags of cotton from dawn to dusk with only half and hour's break for lunch.
Students were given onerous quotas to fulfill, and if they failed to collect enough high grade cotton they were fined a significant proportion of their miniscule wage. Moreover, many students were injured or killed every year whilst riding on farm vehicles or operating machinery. In addition, there have been numerous reports of girls being sexually assaulted by migrant workers in adjoining farms. Some students ran away from the farms but were so fearful of retribution from their teachers they never went back to school.
A cause for concern
It is difficult to estimate how widespread the abuse of summer work and work-study programmes has become in China because such abuses usually only come to light after a media expose or the parents of the abused children organize a petition or campaign to free them. However, on 3 July 2007, the Ministry of Education indicated its concern when it issued new regulations demanding that the hourly wage for students who work in university work-study programs should be no less than eight yuan (about one US dollar) and that students not work more than 40 hours a week.
Unfortunately, the ministry's instructions do not appear to include those middle school students most at risk from work-study programme abuses, and even if they were included it is unlikely the ministry's demands would be heeded. Factory owners would only enforce the regulations if they believed they would be sanctioned for violating them but the local labour agencies who are empowered to fine factory owners for labour abuses are unlikely to follow or even be aware of instructions from the Ministry of Education in Beijing.
Given the demand for cheap labour in southern and coastal China, and the impoverished state of many rural schools in the hinterland, the abuse of the work-study programme is likely to continue unchecked for a long time. Many rural schools feel they have no option but to send their students off to work in the summer because that is the only way they can generate sufficient funds to keep the school going for another year. The central government has promised to relieve rural school debt over the next five years but that does little to address the problem of day-to-day financing. Many rural teachers only receive a small proportion of their salaries from the government and most receive none of the housing or pension benefits they are entitled to. It is little wonder that some teachers like Wang Xiumin were tempted by the offer of 100 per head to ship his students off work in a factory.
Some teachers have done much worse. Two teachers from Guizhou, Chi Yao and his wife Zhao Qingmei, are currently wanted by the police for allegedly forcing several of their primary and middle school students into prostitution over an 18 month period from March 2006.
The central government needs to rapidly overhaul China's anachronistic education system and invest sufficient funds to ensure that students can stay in school without having to work over the summer vacation in order to pay for the following year's schooling. In addition, the government should revise its Regulations Prohibiting the Use of Child Labour to include a clearer and unequivocal definition of child labour, one that covers all forms of child labour seen in China today including work-study and summer work programmes, so that students who wish to participate in them have the full protection of the law.