Child workers freed in factory raids

May 2, 2008

SHANGHAI: China's announcement that it had broken up a child-labour ring, which took children from poor inland areas to work in booming coastal cities, has been seen as acknowledging severe labour abuses extend into the heart of its export economy.

Authorities in the southern province of Guangdong said on Wednesday they had made several arrests and had "rescued" more than 100 children from factories in the city of Dongguan, one of China's largest manufacturing centres for electronics and consumer goods sold worldwide.

The children, mostly 13 to 15, were often tricked or kidnapped by employment agencies in a poor part of western Sichuan province called Liangshan and sent to factory towns in Guangdong, where they sometimes had to work 300 hours a month for little money, Government officials and the state-owned media have reported. The legal working age in China is 16.

The official news agency, Xinhua, said on Wednesday that China was investigating thousands of enterprises suspected of using child workers abducted from Sichuan and sold into slavery. It said the probe has so far extended to 3629 enterprises involving 450,000 individuals.

The abuses may reflect the pressures of worker shortages, high inflation and a rising currency that have reduced profit margins of some Chinese factories and forced them to scramble for an edge - even an illegal one - to stay competitive.

The exposure of the child labour ring by Southern Metropolis Daily, a crusading newspaper in Guangzhou, came less than a year after officials in Shanxi and Henan provinces said they had rescued hundreds of people, including children, from slave labour conditions in rural brick kilns. Many workers said they had been kidnapped.

The earlier case, which local officials sought to keep quiet, sparked uproar in China and prompted a sharp response from the President, Hu Jintao, who vowed a broad crackdown on labour abuses.

Officials did not name the factories or products involved in the latest case, and it is unclear whether any of them were suppliers to global corporations.

They have also said little about the identities of the children. "These youngsters have no ID cards, so it makes it difficult to identify them," a Guangdong Labor Bureau spokesman said.

The New York Times, Reuters