Nearly 200 underage workers hired by an electronics factory in Dongguan were reportedly sent home following an exposé by local media.
They were working more than 11 hours a day for 8.50 yuan (HK$10.67) an hour and used fake identity documents to obtain the jobs, according to the Guangzhou Daily.
A total of 192 "student workers" from Dongguan Gang Gu Electronic boarded buses taking them back to their villages, mostly in Hunan and Guangxi provinces, on Thursday after the local authorities intervened, the newspaper reported yesterday.
A logistics director at the factory said it could not know the veracity of the documents. The factory did hire teenagers, but all were at least 16, the mainland's minimum working age, the director said. Recruitment agents had made the referrals.
"We were a victim [in the recruitment] as well. We are not the police. How can we tell if identification documents are fake or not?" the director told the South China Morning Post. Teachers from vocational schools introduced the pupils to local employment agencies, which provided them with fake hukou, or household registration documents, the Daily said. The agencies helped them apply for the jobs, it said.
"I was worried I would cut my fingers every single day," the Daily quoted one worker, a 13-year-old girl from Guangxi, as saying. Her job was to operate a cutting machine. "But I wanted to keep my job to earn more money."
Workers' rights groups say child labour is widespread on the mainland, and attribute the problem to poor oversight at the local government level.
"According to Chinese law, a factory should pay a fine of 5,000 yuan for each underage worker it hires. But in reality the factories are fined with nothing but criticism by the authorities, partially because there are too many" that engage in the practice, said Zeng Feiyang, director of the Guangdong Panyu Migrant Worker Centre in Guangzhou.
Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesman for the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, agreed. "The local government won't send inspection teams to the factories proactively until journalists do such undercover investigations," Crothall said.
The failure of the government to implement the nine-year compulsory education scheme in rural areas also pushed teenagers into factory work, according to Crothall. "Many of them simply see little value in staying in school," he said.
The majority of junior high school graduates in rural areas would drop study for work, said Dr Liu Kaiming, director of the Shenzhen-based Institute of Contemporary Observation.
"The government should have mapped out a plan [to train or educate] these 15-year-old graduates rather than leaving them working as illegal underage labourers in factories," Liu said.