SHANGHAI: China said Wednesday that it was investigating whether hundreds or perhaps thousands of children from poor areas in the southwest part of the country had been sold to work as slave laborers in booming coastal factory cities.
Authorities in southern Guangdong Province, near Hong Kong, said they had already rescued more than 100 children from factories in Dongguan, a huge manufacturing city known for producing and exporting toys, textiles and electronics.
The children, mostly 13 to 15 years old, were often tricked or kidnapped by employment agencies working in an impoverished part of western Sichuan Province, and then sent to factory towns in Guangdong, where they were often forced to work as much as 300 hours a month for little money, according to government officials and accounts from the state-owned media.
The authorities in southern China said Wednesday that they had arrested several people involved in the case and that they were trying to determine the identities of the children.
“These youngsters have no ID cards, so it makes it difficult to identify them,” said Zhang Xiang, a spokesman for the Guangdong Labor Bureau. The child labor scandal was uncovered by Southern Metropolis Daily, a crusading newspaper based in Guangzhou, in southern China, less than a year after the authorities said they had rescued hundreds of people, including children, from working as “slave laborers” in brick kilns in the north and central part of the country.
Many of the workers in that case also said they had been kidnapped.
The new child labor case “is quite typical,” said Hu Xingdou, a professor of economics and social policy at the Beijing Institute of Technology. “China’s economy is developing at a fascinating speed, but often at the expense of laws, human rights and environmental protection.”
Professor Hu said that although Beijing had pushed to improve labor conditions throughout the nation, local governments were still driven by incentives to make their economies grow, so they tried to lure cheap labor. “Most of the work force comes from underdeveloped or poverty-stricken areas,” he said. “Some children are even sold by their parents, who often don’t have any idea of the working conditions.”
The child labor cases are an embarrassment to the Chinese government, which has in recent years announced a series of nationwide crackdowns on child labor and labor law violations.
But experts say rising labor, energy and raw-material costs, and labor shortages in some parts of southern China, have caused some factory owners to cut costs or find new sources of cheap labor, including child labor.
Even factories that supply global companies, including Wal-Mart Stores, have been accused in recent years of using child labor, and violating local labor laws. Big corporations have stepped up their factory audits, but suppliers are sometimes adept are hiding operations and workers from auditors.
Officials in Dongguan say they are now investigating all factories in the area to determine whether any are employing children. Young people can legally go to work in factories when they turn 16.
In a series of articles this week, journalists working for Southern Metropolis Daily wrote that they had traveled to Liangshan, a prefecture in Sichuan Province, to pose as recruiters and to interview parents and other residents.
The newspaper said recruiters and labor agencies working in Liangshan often transported children south and then “sold” them to factories at virtual auctions in Guangdong Province, one of China’s biggest manufacturing centers and home to a huge population of migrant workers.
At some coastal factories, children were even lined up and selected based on their body type, the journalists wrote.
The newspaper also alleged that when the children were paid, they received about three renminbi per hour, or about 43 cents, far below the local minimum wage, about 64 cents an hour. By law, overtime pay is much higher.
Chen Fulin, a government spokesman in Liangshan, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that the articles on child labor in Southern Metropolis Daily were correct.
“So far, we have detected and found four people in Zhaojue County suspected of luring the youngsters from Liangshan to Dongguan and forcing them to work in factories,” he said. “We are dealing with the illegal employment agencies and the labor dealers, according to the law.” In its report, Southern Metropolis Daily said some children had been threatened with death if they tried to escape from labor recruiters.
The newspaper did not identify the coastal factories where the children worked, but the report said that one was a toy factory in Dongguan, and that it had not been hard for the journalists to uncover the labor scandal.
“Since journalists could discover the facts by secret interviews in a few days,” Southern Metropolis Daily wrote in a separate editorial on Tuesday, “how could the labor departments show no interest in it and turn aside from it for such a long time?”
Chen Yang contributed research for this article.