China’s problem of child labor is getting more and more serious, a monitoring group said Monday, adding to long-standing concerns voiced by human rights groups and even the International Olympic Committee.
A combination of poverty, weak laws, and defects in the education system are allowing the practice to flourish, the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin said.
Authorities need to strengthen enforcement against using children, boost education spending and allow nongovernment organizations a freer hand to help child workers, the group said in a report.
"While poverty is a necessary condition for the creation of child labor, it is by no means the only condition," CLB said. Eliminating child labor in China "does not necessarily require the prior elimination of poverty," it said.
China's Foreign Ministry did not respond immediately Monday when asked to comment. Calls to the Labor Ministry and departments entrusted with children's welfare were not answered.
The report's findings support recent statements by international labor groups and non-government organizations.
The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, says 60 percent of the estimated 350 million child laborers worldwide are in Asia, although it gives no specific figure for China and the country isn't named as one of the worst offenders. Very small children are often used in South Asian countries with industries such as carpet making.
Chinese laws bar children under the age of 16 from the job market and offer special protection for workers below age 18.
However, a large number of children younger than 16 enter the labor market each year - sometimes even forced to work as slaves, the report said. There were no accurate figures on the number of child workers in China, said the CLB, but estimates on numbers of runaways and middle school dropouts range into the hundreds of thousands.
"It is just too tricky to pin down a figure," said a CLB staffer speaking from Hong Kong. He asked not to be identified by name because he was not an official spokesman.
Most child workers have left school, although they also include "work-study" students transported to factories or farms during the school holidays. Although technically legal, that practice is poorly regulated and widely abused, the report said.
The use of "work-study" students was cited in an investigation earlier this year into a company using child labor to produce licensed products for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Despite a perception that child labor is widespread, the state-controlled media reports only sparsely on the problem.
However, the issue burst into the public consciousness this summer after complaints were posted on the Internet by parents of boys forced to toil under harsh conditions as slave laborers in brick yards. Chinese media reported on rescue efforts, but there has been little follow-up.
Unlike in that case, however, the majority of child laborers are believed to be girls, reflecting the tendency to downplay female education in rural areas, the report said.
Employers may increasingly be turning to child workers because of growing scarcity of cheap adult labor in industrialized parts of China. Children are also less likely to assert their legal rights and earn salaries of as little as 300 yuan (about US$40; EUR30) per month, the report said.
Along with receiving poor pay, bad food and cramped living quarters, child workers are susceptible to violence and abuses such as forced overtime, it said. Loneliness and a longing for lost school days contribute to their misery, it said.
Child laborers mostly toil outside the public eye, but some can be seen performing menial labor in restaurants or shops, or handing out advertising cards on city sidewalks.
CLB blamed the high dropout rates on underinvestment in education, leaving Chinese parents with a heavy burden of fees and tuition payments despite the government's claim of nine years of free education.
Despite some attempts to address problem schools, China still spends just 2.7 percent of its gross domestic product on education, less than half of what the United Nations recommends, the report said.
Partly as a result, China's middle school dropout rate is almost certainly several times the official figure of 2.5 percent given by the Education Ministry in its 2005 report. The rate could be as high as 40 percent in some mountainous areas where poverty remains widespread, it said.
An emphasis on exams and advancing up the educational system often leave school
"We therefore believe that, in addition to reforming and strengthening its legal enforcement measures, the government should encourage all levels of society to join in a wide-ranging collaborative effort aimed at tackling the problem at its root," CLB said.
Most crucially, the government should rapidly overhaul China's primary and middle school structure, and invest sufficient funds to ... reduce the supply of child labor at its source," the report said.