Child Labour in China: Causes and solutions

25 November 2003
Despite great advances made in reducing child labour in China since 1949, the practice has not been eradicated and indeed appears to be on the increase. The extent of child labour remains difficult to asses to due a lack of official reporting on cases and the lack of transparency in statistics in China more generally. There is a lack of extensive monitoring of enterprises and in the majority of cases, the existence of child labour is not discovered. In part this is due to the fact that most child labour is to be found in China’s privately owned small scale enterprises which are much harder to monitor than larger state owned companies. In part however, it is due to the lack of monitoring and the negligence of officials in enforcing labour legislation.

The International Labour Organization projected that there would be 9.25 million economically active children between the ages of 10-14 in the year 2000 and that there were 11,575,000 economically active children between the ages of 10-14, representing 11.55% of this age group in 1995. In some enterprises, official reports indicate that child workers make up as much as 20% of the work force.

China has signed the ILO Minimum Age Convention and the U.N. Convention on the Rights on the Child. There are also a number of national regulations that ban child labour and restrict the areas where young adults can work. These include relevant provisions in the Chinese Labour Law, the Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests, the Law on the Protection of Minors, Regulations on the Prohibition of Child Labour, and the Notice on the Prohibition of Child Labour.

Despite this plethora of laws and regulations that outlaw child labour, child labour is increasing. In many instances, punishments for factories found using child labour is simply not enough to outweigh the advantages of using children. There are also numerous ways employers can avoid penalties, for example, one of the main avenues that children make use of to get jobs in China’s export zones are forged or borrowed ID cards and many employers attempt to shirk responsibility for child labour by claiming that the child was employed as an adult on a fake ID card and thus the responsibility is not theirs. In December 2002, national regulations against child labour were also implemented which clarifies the responsibility of employers to check ID cards and other details of their employees – the effect of this legislation remains to be seen.

The majority of employers in China do not employ child labour and yet the increased stress on 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. Children are both cheaper and easier to exploit than adults and can often do repetitive work which requires agility and smallness. One article in the Workers’ Daily summed up the profitability of employing children and 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”.(Note 1)

Privatization of industry has led to an increase in the inability of the Chinese authorities to effectively monitor the situation. Child labour increasingly takes place in the informal sector, despite some control over it in formal sectors. Migrant labour has also helped to increase the number of children available for work and there is a very clear link between the lack of education provision for migrant children and the rise in under age workers in the urban areas where their parents have moved.

Although there are few national reports looking at the issue of child labour some studies have been made which are alarming. One important study conducted by 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 organized recruitment gangs. The problem of child labour is most marked in coastal regions although one study in 1993 gives an estimate of over 10 million children employed in rural enterprise. According to some reports, Zhejiang and Fujian province are the regions with the largest number of child labourers – most of them aged between 13 and 14.

Fujian Province recently issued [July 2003] new guidelines; “Regulations on the Ban on the Use of underage labourers” after local authorities had found some 250 children working – mainly in the coastal regions of Fujian – in the past three years. Many coastal regions are emblematic of the economic reforms in China and are among the most prosperous in China with some of the highest concentration of small privately owned enterprises. The industries with the highest concentrations of child labour include manufacturing as well as firework factories (which often also include working from home or in village workshops and are notoriously difficult to monitor) and in brick kilns

The use of children in private enterprises and small work shops also increases the possibility that children are exposed to toxic fumes, industrial accidents and other health and safety problems which plague small and medium enterprises. Despite national regulations stipulating maximum hours of work and working conditions, in the majority of cases monitored by China Labour Bulletin these regulations are openly flouted. Dangerous and polluted working conditions especially affect children.

Child labour also raises issues of compensation in case of accident or ill health. There have been several cases reported in the Chinese media of the companies refusing to make compensation as the child was under age. Parents are often reluctant to report minor injuries for fear of being fiend for making their child work. In one recent example, on 28 July 2003, an explosion tore apart the workshop of the Guoxi Firework Factory in Xinji, Hebei Province, Killing at least 29 people with scores missing. Among the workers at the factory – according to official reports – was a fifteen year old girl who had been working at the factory for two years. It is not known what compensation - if any - will be offered to the family of the girl, nor what – if any – sanctions will be taken against the factory management.


One of the prime reasons for the increasing numbers of children working instead of attending school is the falling standards in education and the lack of access to education for many of China’s children. As detailed above, for those lucky enough to have access to a school there is not enough incentive to attend and often not enough money for poor families to keep all their children in school.

However, the most common cause for child labour and non attendance of school is poverty. Although some children are tricked into work by relatives or by their families, the majority enter work with the pressure or approval of their parents for economic reasons. In the Jiangxi study mentioned earlier it was found that all the children found working were from families “experiencing economic difficulties”. Despite rising living standards for many Chinese people, there are large sections of the population who are slipping further into poverty and the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing steadily. The rising living costs, mass layoffs, unemployment and the dramatic reduction in social services, medical benefits, food subsidies and the decline in the “danwei” system of employment which guaranteed accommodation and other benefits, means that for many Chinese, the economic reforms are creating poverty not wealth and at the same time the safety net of social security is both inadequate and underdeveloped due to lack of investment and the financial crisis of many local governments, in part caused by corruption.

There are a much greater number of people who are desperate for the extra income a child would provide. This is especially true in areas with high unemployment or in rural or semi rural areas which generally have seen little income increases for rural citizens – in some areas, the income of villagers has in fact decreased. Child labour therefore becomes an intrinsic part of economic survival, despite the low wages received by child labourers.

Another effect of privatization is industrialization and urbanization - rapid rural-to-urban migration has added to the increase of child labor in urban areas. Families leave behind the severity of agricultural working conditions for the cities in order to search for economic opportunities that do not exist in villages. In the last 20 years, this movement has been drastic. In 1980, only 17 percent of the Chinese population lived in urban areas while the number increased to 32 percent in 1998.(Note 2) Such increases, the lack of regular employment, education and accessible social security often forces children and their families into urban poverty and children are then required to work. (Note 3)

Privatization and economic reforms dramatically increased overseas investment in China, particularly from Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and other areas where there are a number of Chinese nationals. Due in part to China’s entry into the WTO, overseas investment increased 39% last year and the trend continues. During the last decade, private enterprises have also rapidly increased, becoming the main source of China’s GDP. Moreover, privatization will continue to accelerate after China’s entry into the WTO. However, China lacks proper legislation to regulate this area and the combination of privatization with weaknesses in economic legislation and extensive official corruption will continue to fuel the growth in child labour as employers take advantage of the lax enforcement of legislation banning child labour.



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 trickle-down theory of “letting some people get rich first”. For many reasons including widespread corruption, 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.

Independent Trade Unions

In the PRC there is only one state controlled and sanctioned trade union – the All China federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) and their branches. Unofficial unions, informal worker groups and attempts to form labour groups are not allowed, recognized or permitted to exist. Although the Chinese Trade Union law states that (Article 2); ‘trade unions are mass organizations formed by the working class of their own free will’ and (Article 3) that workers have ‘the right to organize or join trade unions according to law. No organizations or individuals shall obstruct or restrict them.’ It also states that the ACFTU (Article 10) is the unified national organization and that any basic level union organizations or federations must be submitted to the higher level bodies of the ACFTU. In practice this strips workers of the right to form independent groups as no groups are authorized by the ACFTU except affiliated bodies.

The ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association has formerly stated that the Trade Union Law in China and the effective monopoly of the ACFTU is in direct contravention of the right to freedom of association. The lack of independent trade unions means not only that harsh working conditions are rife within China but that child labour continues with little or no interference. The ACFTU has little power in calling employers to account and given its status as a government sanctioned body in many cases, union leadership corresponds to factory management.

It is widely recognized that the organization of labour in trade unions is the best way to protect workers’ rights, particularly the rights of child workers. But, even without independent unions there are very few union branches of the ACFTU that have been organized in the private sector. Up to the end of 1998, only 7.3% of non-public enterprises have trade unions and only 11.5% of workers of these enterprises have joined the union.(Note 4) One of the reasons for this low number is that employers of private enterprises obstruct and resist the establishment of trade unions and many unions are controlled by owners of the enterprises with some trade union presidents appointed by the owner. In most cases monitored by CLB, the official union is not involved in labour disputes nor in campaigning for safer working conditions.

Increased 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.

Legal Enforcement

There is a pressing need for uniform and concrete enforcement of existing legislation banning child labour under 16 and the use of young adults in heavy or dangerous industries. This will include the need for increased punishments for employers who break national legislation. 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”. (note 5) 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.

Lack of monitoring and follow up

Rehabilitation of children discovered working is essential to breaking the circle of poverty that creates conditions in which child labour can flourish. In addition, the children discovered working need to be reunited with their families and given access to education and other benefits – the denial of which had in most cases led to their seeking work. However, there have been several high profile cases of employers who fail to take remedial action once child labour has been discovered in their factories or within their sub contracting factories.

For example, in one case monitored by the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee it was found that a sub contractor not only employed children but actively sought child labour for the production of toys for export. Children were recruited poor rural areas to work in a factory in Guangdong province. The children worked in appalling conditions. Once the situation was discovered the multinational company subcontracting the Chinese factory allegedly first denied the allegations, however it later accepted that there were ‘irregularities’. Following this admission they then cancelled their contract with the company concerned without any further action. This in turn led to the company laying off many of its adult staff as well as leaving the children stranded in Guangdong with no means of support or transport home.

Access to official statistics and data transparency

Reliable statistics are an essential tool for governments 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 affected. 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 organizations 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 organizations 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 a select number of unscrupulous employers.


Note 1 :Workers Daily “Jia Shenfenzheng” 6 June 2000

Note 2 : Civilian Political Department, State Council, 2001 annual report.

Note 3 :Barker, G. and F. Knaul. 1991. "Exploited Entrepreneurs: Street and Working Children in Developing Countries." Working Paper Number 1, Childhope-USA, Inc. New York.

Note 4 :Kai Chang, “WTO Vs China’s labor”, Today’s workers and farmers,

Note 5 :UNICEF, Strategies for Eliminating Child Labour: prevention, removal and rehabilitation”, October 1997

November 2003

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.