Scourge of child labour a result of urban-rural wealth divide

There have been reports of shocking cases in China but until the wealth gap is addressed, the problem will not go away

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 November, 2016, 1:41am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 November, 2016, 1:41am

Few issues outrage the public conscience and spur demands for official action in the mainland quite like the exploitation of child labour. This is especially so at times when circumstances focus attention on China’s progress. An example, ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was the horror stories of mainland children rescued from enslavement in the brick factories of Shanxi (山西) and Henan (河南), prompting hard-hitting editorials in official media criticising official corruption, ineptness and inaction. Nearly 10 years later, the same kind of blot on China’s image has sparked condemnation. This time, it has emerged just as the spotlight has been shone on China’s rise amid uncertainties about American global engagement under president-elect Donald Trump.The latest example is about clothing factories in eastern China’s garment hub using child labour from remote, poor areas under shocking conditions to cut costs in the face of competition from South Asia. Many of the more than 1,000 garment makers in Changshu, Jiangsu (江蘇) province, are reported to have been using workers under 16 among cheap labour recruited by local agents from impoverished Yunnan (雲南) province.

Under 16 and working 16 hours a day ... Chinese clothes factories import cheap child labour from across China

According to mainland media, children who should still be at school are basically prisoners, at risk of physical abuse and working more than 12 hours a day. This has rightly prompted calls for those responsible for this exploitation to face exemplary punishment, and for officials to be held to account for dereliction of duty in allowing it to go on, if not for wrongdoing.

That said, child labour in Changshu has not slipped entirely under the radar, with one report that in the last four years the authorities have handled 100-odd cases involving more than 200 children. Sadly, that appears to be only the tip of the iceberg.

Child labour may be against the law, but it is a symptom of generational poverty that makes city factory jobs attractive to children from poverty-stricken areas . Ultimately, China will not be able to erase this blot on its rise unless and until it significantly narrows the wealth gap between urban and rural areas.