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Exploited Childhood

A vast network of child traffickers supplies labor to east China’s textile factories

By Gong Longfei Updated Mar.5

It took Wei Junsheng two and half days by bus to cross half the country, from his village in southwestern Guizhou Province to the city of Changshu in eastern Jiangsu Province. At 1,180 miles from home, it was the farthest the 14-year-old boy had ever been.  

Wei started working at a small garment factory in Changshu in February 2016. Each day Wei worked for over 15 hours, and each month the boy had only two days off. His fingers were rough, his long nails grimy with dirt and cotton fibers. In the last nine months, Wei turned at least 300,000 pairs of trousers inside out, as his job was to turn the legs inside out and stick cotton patches to the insides.  

Children like Wei are common in the factories of Changshu. Footage released by Pearl Video on November 21 revealed how common the employment of underage workers was in Changshu. The two videographers, surnamed Han and Zhou, went undercover at a local garment factory for five days, talking to employers, agents and workers there and recording the poor working and living conditions of the teenage laborers. The footage shows how skinny boys bend their necks to work on sewing machines in a dimly lit, cotton-filled sweatshop. What awaits them every day is overwork, fatigue – and violence.  

The video quickly went viral on social media, compelling the local government to conduct an investigation and crack down on the illegal labor within a day. The authority inspected 1,797 workshops and 163 shops and enterprises, finding 10 suspected underage workers, who have been put up in a hotel and will be sent home after the government helps get them the wages they are owed.  

As China News Service reported, since 2012 there have been a total of 107 cases of child labor in Changshu, involving 211 children. Behind the phenomenon there exists an illegal chain of transactions bringing children from the poverty-stricken countryside of central and western China – areas such as Yunnan, Guizhou and Henan –who are chosen each year by managers, headhunters and villagers and sent in groups across the interior to Jiangsu. “It’s a rather complicated issue, not a simple matter of poverty,” the videographer Han told NewsChina.  

Isolated Children 
After being found during the crackdown on November 22, Wei Junsheng and three other teenage laborers – 14-year-old Li Yilong, 15-year-old Yang Junpeng and 16-year-old Liu Jiefei – have been transferred to a local hotel. The four boys were from the same village in Guizhou and worked at the same unlicensed garment workshop that appeared in the video.  

Just after the 2016 Chinese New Year, the foreman of the workshop, 40-year-old Feng Jian, traveled to the village and picked up the four children along with another six young adult villagers after being introduced by Wang Ming, a local villager and at the time also a worker at Feng’s workshop. Both Feng and Wang were arrested by the police for hiring child laborers on November 22, the day of the raid.  

When our reporter met them in their hotel room, the four kids, with dark circles under their eyes, were playing games on a mobile phone, wearing the new winter coats the police officers had bought for them.  

For the children, these days staying in the hotel were the first in a long time that they had felt any sense of freedom. Previously they had to work from 7am to 11pm or later. Every day at 11:10am and 5:10pm, they had just ten minutes’ break to eat.  

“At first our boss didn’t set us a fixed workload and we could finish work at 7pm. But ten days after we started, the boss told me to get through 500 pieces per shift, and then he raised it to 700. He kept raising my workload and by the end it was 1,300,” Liu Jiefei told NewsChina. He had been assigned to sewing waistbands on to trousers.  

As Wei told our reporter, they had only a bowl of rice for each meal, with nothing else to eat. Only on rare occasions when their workload was almost unbearably heavy would they be offered a bit of meat. Each night after finally finishing work, if they had any money, the children would buy some fried rice or instant noodles to feed themselves.  

Once they had been brought to Changshu, the boss warned that any absence from work would be severely punished: 300 yuan (US$43) would be deducted from their salary if the teens asked for a day’s leave.  

Of the four boys, only Wei once asked for a day off. “I had a high fever that day. I couldn’t manage to get out of bed,” the teen recollected. He did not buy any medicine, and just lay in bed in the dim dorm room the whole day. Wei felt lucky that boss did not dock his pay that time.  

To stop children from leaving, the boss would confiscate their ID cards and bankcards as well as their mobile phone SIM cards. Teens who owned mobiles could use them for games and social networks, but not to make calls. The only way they could contact their parents was through the foreman and older coworkers from the same villages.  

According to the footage, although the teen workers are promised a monthly wage of 2,500 yuan (US$260), they are not be paid their wages until the end of the lunar year. Teens would be paid just 300 to 500 yuan (US$43-71) a fortnight. The rest was withheld until the next Spring Festival.  

“On my first day here, my boss warned me that if I quit the job before the end of the lunar year, I wouldn’t get any of my money,” says Xiaoxiong (pseudonym) in the video. The 14 year-old, from Yunnan’s Wenshan Zhuang, a Miao ethnicity autonomous region, tells the videographers: “I was asked to pay 3,700 yuan (US$532) after I went to work for another factory and was caught by my former boss. I didn’t have the money, so he took my computer instead.”  

Beatings as well as the threat of violence are routine, according to those interviewed in the video. “They [the kids] will definitely get beaten if they do not obey. They work much faster after a good beating,” a foreman tells Han in the video.  

In order to capture the footage, Han worked in the workshop for four days and found the work unbearable himself. “Many imagine that working in a clothing factory is not really a hardship since workers aren’t out in the sun. But in fact it is extremely arduous work. Day in, day out, laborers have to repeat the exact same movement several thousand times. Teen workers only earn 5 yuan [US$0.71] an hour on average, far less than the local minimum wage,” Han told NewsChina.  

“They [the employers] are boiling the frog. On the one hand, they raise the workload day by day to numb the child laborers, and on the other, withholding their wages keeps the boys from fleeing. The more of the children’s money that’s kept, the more tolerant they become towards the torturous work – that’s the strategy the boss utilizes,” Han said.  

Illicit Chain 
Based on the cases uncovered so far, the exploitation of underage workers is most common in the clothing industry as it is less physically demanding. In garment processing, where there is a need for patience and attention to detail, the teen workers are as productive as adults. Teens are favored by employers as they are more pliable, easier to control and cheaper to hire.  

As one of the five wealthiest county-level cities in China, Changshu is known for its garment industry as it has the country’s largest clothing wholesale market, worth over 120 billion yuan (US$17 billion) annually, employing approximately 360,000 workers across the city.  

According to the findings in the video, most of the thousand garment factories in Changshu use workers under 16, the legal minimum working age nationwide. Most underage workers are middle school dropouts recruited from small villages in mountainous regions in southwestern Guizhou and Yunnan. From these areas there has developed a mature and illicit supply chain that stretches across half of China.  

As many of the smaller clothing factories in Changshu are unlicensed, owners are unable to recruit workers through the legal channels for hiring. Thus they resort to finding workers themselves or with the assistance of headhunters.

An unidentified source in the film says that it is common for clothing factories to recruit child workers without a contract, using verbal promises instead. Headhunters usually make promises of high salaries and good living conditions to attract villagers from poverty-stricken areas. Recruits, many of whom are children, are bussed in groups to their new jobs on the east coast. A headhunter in the video says that last year 6,000 people were taken from Yunnan to Changshu, with a 2,000-3,000 yuan (US$290-430) agency finder’s fee paid for each one.  

“Finding workers for clothing factories is the most difficult because [the bosses] are only looking for young people. The smaller, the better. A lots of workers we’ve introduced are minors,” a headhunter says in the video. The videographer Han told NewsChina that many workers he met in the sweatshop over 16 were children when they first arrived.  

According to Chinese labor law, companies cannot employ people under the age of 16 and those aged 16 to 18 can be employed in limited capacities and working hours.  

Nevertheless, it is difficult for authorities to crack down on child labor and illegal recruitment agencies. “Managers of the factories definitely know the law well. Teenagers are told by managers, headhunters or their parents to lie about their age. Usually they lie and say that they are above 16 and don’t have an ID card. It’s common in some poor areas for people to not have ID cards,” said Zhi Huiliang, the director of the labor security agency of Yushan town, Changshu city.  

Unstoppable Dropouts 
After the video went viral online, netizens argued that it is poverty that essentially results in children dropping out of school and turning to illegal work, though it is a theory refuted by many middle school teachers in central and western regions. “Poverty is never the primary factor that causes [children to] drop out. There are only a few students whose families face serious problems making ends meet, especially those in towns,” teachers told Beijing Youth Daily.  

“The common occurrence of children from central and western regions dropping out and working elsewhere is a consequence of parents’ connivance and local government’s failure to effectively implement the law in terms of compulsory education,” Xiong Bingqi, deputy president of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, wrote in his article “Beware the ‘Education is Useless’ Theory Behind the Phenomenon of Child Laborers” published in China Education Daily.  

Xiong indicated that the theory that “education is useless” is spreading in some remote central and western areas. Many parents believe that their children have no future with a school education. Teenagers also feel that they cannot pass exams and get into universities even if they tried, let alone find jobs after graduation, so they might as well start earning money now. Many village students even show envy over their friends who work away from home.  

As Han told NewsChina, in recent years, poorer areas in central and western regions have seen hastening development. The urban lifestyle has come as a shock to the once simple and insular way of life in the mountainous areas. Locals are lured farther afield in search of change and modernity.  

One of the youths who speaks to Han in the video, 14-year-old, fair-haired village boy Xiaowen dropped out of middle school after finishing the first year. He tells Han in the video that he had planned to find a job away from home after the coming Spring Festival: “None of [my friends] look cool at all when they’re at home. But when they go away to work and then come back, it seems that they’ve all changed into different people. They have cool hairstyles and just look awesome.”  

According to a report on the implementation of the law that made nine years of education compulsory, published by the law-enforcement inspection group of the NPC Standing Committee in 2013, in some less-developed areas, especially the remote regions populated by ethnic minorities, the middle school dropout rate exceeds 10 percent.  

Scholars have indicated that the real situation may be far worse than the published figure. Research conducted in 2010 by the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy show that the dropout rate in some middle schools in western rural areas has surpassed 25 percent. It is estimated that every year, 700,000 middle-school students in impoverished areas drop out of school, becoming the main source of child laborers.  

“If a class has 50 students, 17 or 18 of them will drop out,” a middle school teacher told Pearl Video. “Usually, to begin with, there are about 500 first-year students. After two years, at most 300 of them might still be at school.”

Xiong Bingqi argued that the key to solving the middle-school dropout problem is preventing pupils from becoming child laborers. Schools and local authorities, Xiong stresses, should effectively implement the nine-year compulsory education law, and, more importantly, take effective measures to instill the importance of education on parents.  

“Admittedly, the compulsory education system is not perfect. It has many urgent problems that have to be solved through education reform, such as the inequality of education resource distribution and the overemphasis of exam results. But the existing flaws should never be an excuse for children not receiving compulsory education,” Xiong wrote.