Whenever the Chinese media exposes a case of child labour, a fairly predictable pattern unfolds: commentators express surprise and outrage, government officials promise to investigate, the children are “rescued” and sent back home. Then the story is forgotten about – until the next exposé, when the whole process starts again.
This time however, things may be different. Following the 30 December exposé in the Southern Metropolis Daily of an electronics company in Shenzhen that employed more than 70 underage workers, an editorial in The Beijing News today called on the government to come up with a clear action plan and timetable to eradicate the root causes of child labour in China.
The editorial highlighted comments made by many of the “rescued” children in Shenzhen who said they did not want to return home. Instead they wanted to stay at the factory because “when we are working we can eat meat.”
The children all came from the poverty stricken, mountainous region of Liangshan in Sichuan but the editorial noted that the problem was not simply caused by poverty. The Beijing News pointed out that the appalling state of the rural school system in impoverished regions of China was the key factor in creating the supply of child labour. Although education is supposed to be free and compulsory in these areas, many rural students have to pay onerous school fees and travel enormous distances simply to attend school. The only way for many of these children to get an education is to attend a boarding school, an option that is just too expensive for most families. “That is why they forget about going to school, set aside childish ways and become mere cogs in the factory production line,” the editorial said.
The editorial noted that Liangshan was a notorious source of child labour, with a well-established network of child labour traffickers. The problem was well-known, it said, and there was now no possible excuse for failing to take action.
The editorial echoes many of the findings and recommendations of CLB’s research report on child labour, first published in Chinese some eight years ago in 2006. Since that time, there have been numerous cases of child labour exposed by the media, most notoriously the Shanxi brickyard scandal of 2007, but until now there has been next to no serious discussion in the mainstream media of the root causes of child labour. Hopefully, today’s editorial in The Beijing News will be the start of not just a serious discussion but of serious action as well.