Child Labour in China

30 December 2000

(Originally published in CLB Issue #57, Nov-Dec 2000)

Common conjecture has it that child labour was more or less wiped out in post-liberation China and that its reappearance is directly linked to the increased role of private enterprise in the Chinese economy. That the use of child labour was widespread before the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took power in 1949 is beyond doubt. Children were an integral part of China's faltering first steps towards industrialisation as the following description of a Tianjin cotton mill in the early 1930s illustrates:

"Children laboured in every department: boys in the departments where male adults predominated, girls in the women's departments. In the spinning mill they were most often put to work at piecing... in the weaving mill they were assigned to heddling, or threading the warp along a set of parallel cords in the loom. Both these jobs required excellent eyesight, dexterity and concentration." (1)

Once the CCP took power in 1949, the new government set about reforming the education system and getting children, especially urban children, out of the workplace and back into school. Its success in the cities was spectacular, and the collectivization of agriculture in the countryside also made a significant contribution to a dramatic reduction of child labour in China. Just how spectacular is difficult to measure. Government propaganda at the time claimed near total success, but independent figures are unavailable. Despite the lack of hard data it is probably not an exaggeration to say that China's "achievements in lowering infant mortality and improving nutrition, health and education rank among the best in the developing world". (2)

Defining Child Labour

Child labour does not refer to young people who work a few hours a week to earn pocket money or to help their families. Providing such work does not interfere with the child's education, health and development, there is nothing particularly harmful about it. It has nothing in common with the problems faced by large numbers of children who have to work long hours or under detrimental conditions to ensure their families' survival.

(Strategies for Eliminating Child Labour, ILO and United Nations Children's Fund)

However, the fact that child labour is now definitely back is largely accepted both inside and outside China, even if it's extent remains largely unmeasured. Ironically, it is officials at the Ministry of Labour and Social Security (MOLSS) who appear to be dragging their heals on acknowledging the existence of the problem, even as the official press runs dramatic reports on the scourge. According to a recent article published in Hong Kong, officials at the MOLSS "claim that no government figures are available because child labour is not a problem in China." (3)

Various Reports

It clearly is. The International Labour Organisation projected that there would be 9.25 million economically active children between the ages of 10-14 in the year 2000. (4) China's minimum age for legal employment is 16. It seems logical therefore that the total figure for child labour is much higher. Many of the children who get jobs in China's coastal regions do so on the basis of a fake, borrowed or stolen ID card that falsifies their age. Clearly these children must be at least 13 or 14 for the cards to have any legitimacy even in the eyes of employers looking to make up for high staff turn-over rates and keep up production. Although China has a plethora of laws and regulations that outlaw child labour, many employers are prepared to ignore them in order to meet production deadlines. A survey looking into the problem of the use of fake ID cards to get work, conducted by the labour bureau in Nanhai City, Guangdong province shed some light on employers' attitudes. It found that more than 80% of employers felt that their job was to maintain production and that fake ID cards were not their concern as long as production and deadlines were met. (5) Yet forged or borrowed ID cards are one of the main avenues that children make use of to get jobs in China's export zones.

McDonald's and Child Labour

As far back as 1995, China Labour Bulletin estimated that there were 10 million working children in China and in 1993 a Workers' Daily report estimated that as many as 20% of the people working in small-scale rural township and village enterprises (TVEs) were children. More recently a China Central Television programme exposing child labour in the province of Jiangxi prompted provincial government leaders to take immediate action. A two-week inspection of 8,027 enterprises of all types revealed 525 child workers and the existence of organised recruitment gangs.

Real Data Required

"Many countries do not collect or publish figures on child labour, and in those where such statistics are produced, they provide only a partial view of the problem, since they exclude whole categories of working children, particularly those in domestic services, traditional agriculture and the informal sector". (6)

As the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) stresses, reliable statistics are an essential tool that governments must have if they are going to take child labour seriously. Legislation on its own will have little effect unless it is backed up by government or NGO programmes that effectively target the areas most effected. One of the chief problems in China is the lack of independent NGOs and trade unions that can effectively monitor the problem. Whereas the press organs of official Chinese organisations such as the All China Federation of Women (ACWF) and the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) have started to publish stories exposing child labour, there appears to be little effort made by these organisations to measure the extent of the problem and where it is most serious. The Jiangxi survey quoted above found that child labour was present in many different types of enterprises including private companies, TVEs, enterprises sub-contracted by state owned enterprises and collective enterprises. Even this rough data shatters the myth that child labour is solely confined to greedy private employers.

The Laws

The need for accurate data is even more pressing as China becomes more deeply integrated into the international economy. It is commonly assumed that child labour is most common in China's export zones, and indeed this has led to the threat of trade sanctions and consumer boycotts. Yet this assumption could well be wrong. The limited figures available tend to suggest that child labour in China reflects international trends and "the vast majority of children are engaged in production for domestic consumption, rather than for the export sector" (7)
. If the Chinese government relaxed the rules that govern NGOs and allowed them to operate freely, China might at least make a start at collecting reliable data on which policy could be based.

The Children

Official press reports in China suggest that the reasons children have to work in China are little different from anywhere else. The 525 children discovered working in Jiangxi province were all from "families experiencing economic difficulties". The report stated that among them, some had been tricked into work, others had been sent to work by their parents and most had been unable to complete the nine-year compulsory education that is the legal right of all children in China. China Women, an official organ of the ACWF is more incisive and states that while family poverty is the underlying reason, other related factors play a part. These include an increase in school fees, an increase in children being abandoned following a divorce, the virtual privatisation of medical care and a decline in access to it. When both parents are sick and unable to earn money, they have no choice but to look to children as a source of income. Another stated reason is the wish of young teenagers themselves to earn money. In a revealing interview with one 14-year old child worker engaged in carving stone lions in Fujian province, the change in attitudes brought about by the last 20 years of reform was starkly expressed. "My dad said: 'What's the point of studying? One has to work anyway. Might as well start early making money'" (8).

The Employers

Most employers in China do not employ child labour. Yet the logic of competitive production combined with a poorly regulated labour market and widespread corruption has resulted in some employers turning to child labour as a way of reducing unit costs of production. Management at the 1930s Tianjin mill quoted above pointed out that although children were not as strong as adults, they used them because children "were cheap, they were young, they were pretty honest, and they didn't try to shirk the job". (9) Modern day employers are perhaps a little less candid, but the principles remain the same. Workers' Daily quoted an employer as saying: "For every piece produced by an adult worker, I have to pay one dollar while I only have to pay a child 70 cents. Children's food and lodging costs are also cheaper". (10)

China's Educational Policy

China's Compulsory Education Law came into effect in 1995. Article 18 states that local governments are obliged to ensure that all children attend school for at least nine years up to the age of 16. However, the law also states that local governments are at least partly responsible for education funding and this has led to at least a 10-fold increase in school fees between 1991 and 1997. (11) National statistics claim extremely high enrollment rates even in poor areas although it is becoming harder for the government to ignore the fact that increasing numbers of children, especially girls, are dropping out of school. According to British project managers from the Department of International Development, one county in Gansu province north-west China had a graduation rate of only 25% of the children who enroll in primary school. All were boys. (12) Others have also blamed increasing school fees for the increase in drop outs and corresponding increase in child workers. Research conducted by the Beijing-based Internal Migrants Legal Aid and Research Centre found that many child flower sellers, so-called "flower children" working the Beijing bars came from You county in central Hunan province. You county has a school drop out rate of 40% among children over 10 years old.

Flower Children

Migrant labour has also helped to increase the number of children available for work. Many of the school fees in the cities have exorbitant "support fees" that make it impossible for the children of migrant workers to attend regular schools. In Beijing these fees can amount to Rmb 2,000 with an added book-borrowing fee of Rmb 480 per term. (13) The vast majority of migrant workers are paid the minimum wage, which in Beijing is Rmb 400, putting the local schools way beyond the budget of migrant workers. Although many migrants have taken the initiative and set up their own schools - there are 114 "migrant worker schools" in Beijing alone - these are lacking in facilities and are often run by unqualified staff. A recent survey in Beijing found that 31% of the headmasters running "migrant worker schools" have no formal teaching qualifications. (14)

Prevention Better Than Cure

According to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) China ranks at 145 out of 153 countries in terms of per capita expenditure on education. If China is going to improve access to education and help dry up the supply of child labourers, it must address the issue of poverty and rising school fees in the countryside. While central government investment in rural education remains so low, the supply of child labour will continue to spiral in a vicious circle of poverty, lack of access to education and the consequent failure to attain one of the key protections against child labour - an adequate education.

However, attacking child labour cannot be successful if the problem is approached as a single issue. While free primary school education is critical, removal of children from workplaces and their successful rehabilitation in school is vital to government policies on child labour. As can be seen above, China already has adequate laws forbidding child labour but these laws must be "accompanied by adequate enforcement mechanisms and by effective action to improve the availability of relevant and affordable education and to provide poor families with alternative means of survival". (15) Complex reporting procedures and inter-provincial red tape often prevent employers being punished for employing children from outside their own province. Also there is little evidence that children rescued from factories and mines are successfully rehabilitated in schools. Most press reports in China simply state that the children are "dismissed from the workplace" making them vulnerable to even worse forms of child labour or sent home to continuing poverty.

Underpinning all attempts to reduce child labour in China must be economic policies that not only create jobs and reduce poverty, but are also aimed at increasing the wealth of all sections of the population rather than just a few. The fundamentals of China's reforms have been inspired by the neo-liberal trickle-down theory of "letting some people get rich first". This policy has failed China"s workers and peasants and their children. The gap between rich and poor is now wider than the US and the poorest families are often left with no option but to send their children out to earn money. The Chinese government must formulate economic policies that generate equitable, balanced growth aimed at eliminating poverty and its exploitation rather than creating millionaires.


  1. Gail Hershatter: The Workers of Tianjin 1900-1949, p54. Published 1986. (back)

  2. Calum and Lijia Macleod: 'Never Seen Never Heard' in SCMP 12/07/00. (back)

  3. Calum and Lijia Macleod: op.cit. (back)

  4. ILO stat. Working Papers 1997. (back)

  5. Gongren Ribao (Workers' Daily) "Jia Shenfenzheng", 06/06/00. (back)

  6. United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) "Strategies for Eliminating Child Labour: prevention, removal and rehabilitation", 10/1997. (back)

  7. UNICEF op.cit. (back)

  8. Calum and Lijia Macleod: op.cit. (back)

  9. Gail Hershatter, op.cit. (back)

  10. Gonggren Ribao (Worker's Daily) "Jia shenfenzheng", 06/06/00. (back)

  11. China Statistical Yearbook 1999, China statistics Press, Beijing. (back)

  12. Official Statistics Real State of Mainland Schools, 01/05/00, SCMP. (back)

  13. Gongren Ribao (Workers' Daily) 30/09/00. (back)

  14. Gongren Ribao (Workers' Daily) 30/09/00. (back)

  15. United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) "Strategies for Eliminating Child Labour: prevention, removal and rehabilitation". 10/1997. (back)


Various Reports

27 Children Locked in Bathroom by Employer

A government inspection into illegal use of child labour in Linhai City, Zhejiang province persuaded an employer using children to take drastic action. His factory employed 27 under-age workers and on June 3rd, 2000, he moved all of them to a relativeOs house in a nearby village where he locked them up in a second story bathroom so that they wouldnOt be discovered by government inspectors. After three days, local police discovered and rescued the children. The case was brought before the Linhai Court and the employer Wu Zhangji was found guilty of illegally employing and detaining children. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison. The sentence would have been heavier but for the behaviour of the accusedOs relatives who arranged for the children to be sent home and paid them compensation.

(China: Nanfang Daily 25/9/00)

Agency Introduction Leads to Tragedy

At one o'clock September 22, 2000 a maid working at a household in Changchun City, Jilin province called her employer and told him that his 15-month old son was dead. The father rushed home and immediately called the police who arrested the maid. She later admitted that she had hit the child to try to stop him from crying. Police investigations also revealed that the maid was only 14 years old. As she was not old enough to assume legal responsibility for her actions, she was not able to stand trial and was sent home. The childOs father said that his daughter had dropped out of school two months earlier as the family could no longer afford to keep her there. At that time, a village cadre named Li told the family that the Changchun City All China WomanOs Federation (ACWF) had an employment agency that arranged work introductions for domestic maids. The cadre claimed that a maid could make up to Rmb 300 per month. Altogether three children from the village set off to find work via the ACWF agency. Further investigations revealed that the ACWF agency frequently appointed local contacts in the villages to keep an eye out for potential employees between the ages of 18 and 20. In this case the local contact was the aforementioned Li. On arriving in the city, the child in this case told the agency that she was 17 years old and so the agency trained her and introduced her to an employer. The agency has been closed pending an internal inquiry.

(China:Legal Daily 29/09/00)

Illegal Firework Factory Explodes

An illegal firework factory in Sanshi Pujin township, Anhui province exploded, killing 14 people and injuring three. Eleven child workers aged between 8 and 13 were among the dead. The explosion took place on the second story of a building being used to produce fireworks without a permit. The explosion was so violent that the whole building was reduced to rubble.

(HK: Ming Pao 13/01/99)


McDonald's and Child Labour

Rehabilitation of children discovered working is essential to breaking the circle of poverty that creates conditions in which child labour can flourish. In CLB's view the rehabilitation process is partly the responsibility of the employer involved. Yet the recent exposure of child workers employed by a factory producing toys for McDonald's in Guangdong province illustrated how callously multi-national corporations can react if they think their image maybe tarnished by sub-contractors' behaviour. The exposure revealed two disturbing facts:

  • Management from the subcontractor, City Toys, was proactive in its employment of children. City Toys representatives traveled five hundred miles to a small poverty-stricken village to find employees and made it clear that age was not a problem, as long as the children looked older and could obtain an older person's ID card. They wanted girls rather than boys, as they perceived the former to be more obedient. The company took 40-50 people, including many children, back to the factory in the back of a lorry.

  • Following the line adopted by other TNCs who have found themselves facing similar accusations, McDonald's reaction was twofold: Firstly they denied the existence of child labour, but admitted their auditors subsequently found othe "irregularities".. Secondly, they cancelled their contract with City Toys saying they were in violation of the McDonald's code of conduct. This encouraged mass lay-offs at the factory. No effort was made by McDonald's to rehabilitate the children or ensure they were returned to school. The children were simply cut adrift five hundred miles from home in a strange environment and open to even worse abuse.

McDonald's attempts to distance itself from the blatantly illegal practices of its subcontractor without any concern for the children involved were both callous and hypocritical. In China, the company was exposed as being linked to the employment of under-age workers in a country where independent trade unions - an effective tool against the employment of children in the first place - are banned by law. Yet at the same time, the company's preference for young employees appears to be global. In 1999, McDonald's argued that employees at a franchised outlet in Canada could not form a union without parental consent. Why? The company said they were too young to join a union but not too young to work.


The Laws

ILO Minimum Age Convention, 1973: ratified by China in 1999

U.N. Convention on the Rights on the Child: signed by China in 1990

China: Labour Law, Article 15:
"Work units shall not employ workers who have not reached the age of 16." (1995)

China: Law on the Protection of Women's Rights and Interests, Article 22:
" It is forbidden to employ women workers who have not reached the age of 16."

China: Compulsory Education Law, Article 18:
"The State shall implement a nine-year compulsory education system." (1995)

China: Law on the Protection of Minors, Article 28:
"Except for exceptions in separate State laws, no organization or individual shall employ persons under the age of 16." (1992)

China: Regulations on the Prohibition of Child Labour, Article 13:
Grants labour administration departments the right to fine work units or individuals for employing child labour.

China: Notice on the Prohibition of Child Labour:
Grants trade administration bureaus the right to fine or revoke the business licence of an employer using child labour. (1998)


Flower Children

Most of the nightlife areas in China's major cities are populated with children who make a living selling flowers to adults on an evening out. The children are usually girls, but boys are also used. Many of the children are connected to an "aunty" or "uncle" who take a cut of the profits and supply the flowers. In November and December 1999, China Women (Zhongguo Funubao) carried out an investigation into the lives of the children. The following is a translation of the part of the report covering the children themselves:

Ah Ying:

From Zhuzhou City, You county in Hunan province. Eleven years old, female. Ah Ying has been selling flowers for two years in the Sanlitun district of Beijing. She appears to be very innocent but is very streetwise when it comes to selling her flowers. She excels at spotting a customer and appears to be able to separate the potential buyers from those who aren't interested. She is very popular with passers-by and some of the bar owners will let her in to sell flowers, but not other children. Ah Ying is also very popular with her fellow flower sellers. Along with two other children from her village, she was detained by the city authorities for four days in September and was taken to Tianjin on her release by an "aunty" from her village. On October 6th, they returned to Beijing and resumed selling flowers. On the surface, Ah Ying appears to be a lively happy child. However when our researchers asked her to write something on a piece of paper, she drew some flowers and wrote underneath "I want to go to school".

Liu Lianghua:

The only boy we came across during the research. Liu is a fine-featured boy of 13. He is also from You county in Hunan. We spoke to him twice. The first time he boasted that he could make at least Rmb 200 a month and at Spring Festival he went back to his village with his "aunty" and handed over the money he made to his parents. Lianghua was an expert flower seller and demonstrated to us how he captured the attention of potential buyers. He was very confident and behaved like a streetwise itinerant. He also told us he had been in detention. However, the second time we spoke to him he was very impatient and said "I haven't got any time to talk to you, I have to sell flowers. You don't understand".

He Shuanghuan and Wang Lijing:

Both these girls were from the same village in Hunan. They were very well known among the flower sellers in Beijing. When we asked them what they usually eat, Shuanghuan immediately answered that they ate cabbage and rice. However her friend stared at her angrily and Shuanghuan then said that they ate meat everyday. During September and October, Lijing and Shuanghuan were held in a detention centre and then returned home by the authorities. However, by November they had returned to Beijing.

Liu Shuangyu:

An extremely intelligent 13-year old girl from Hunan. Mature and sensitive, Shuangyu cried both times we spoke to her and said she regretted ever coming to Beijing. She had dropped out of school because her family could not afford to pay the Rmb 60 required to take an end-of-year exam. She shared a bed with two other girls and constantly thought about going back to school.


Online: 2000-12-31
Back to Top

This website uses cookies that collect information about your computer.

Please see CLB's privacy policy to understand exactly what data is collected from our website visitors and newsletter subscribers, how it is used and how to contact us if you have any concerns over the use of your data.