When a British-based labor consortium charged this week that factory workers as young as 12 are toiling to produce gear and souvenirs licensed by Beijing for its 2008 Olympics, China's reaction was swift.
Beijing officials announced they would deal "seriously" with factories that violate China's "very strict" labor codes. But the negative publicity – along with other reports that the problem goes beyond production of Olympic-related memorabilia – comes at a sensitive moment for Beijing as it seeks to burnish its international image ahead of the games.
Some observers say that the latest reports represent a weak point in China's otherwise strong record of enforcing child labor laws – especially at a time when child labor is on the decline worldwide.
Playfair Alliance, which targets sporting goods and athletic merchandise, reported this week that child labor in China is not limited to a few factories making Olympic souvenirs but may be a growing, potentially widespread problem spurred by increasing labor shortages and rural poverty.
Another survey report from the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, which investigated a growing underage labor force in several small towns, found that poorly funded rural schools and a higher-than-recorded school dropout rate are forcing many children to work before the law allows.
In small towns across the vast Chinese countryside, kids age 13, 14, and 15 – below the legal working age of 16 – are entering the workforce as factory owners and other employers turn a blind eye, according to the report.
"Looking at the results of our on-site surveys, and reports in the Chinese media … we do not believe that the child labor problem in China has been suppressed that effectively," said the China Labour Bulletin's report.
A 2006 study from the International Labor Organization (ILO) said that overall, child labor has been reduced by 11 percent in the past four years worldwide.
Despite the recent studies, conclusive figures aren't available in China, so no true comparison is possible. The Chinese government considers the topic too sensitive to allow international groups to conduct widespread national investigations of how many under-age workers appear in the labor force.
With the problem not yet quantified, labor-rights groups are relying on bits and pieces of information they can gather by interviewing factory workers, families, and school authorities. The anecdotal evidence shows increasing pockets of child labor, especially in the poorest areas and in factories that operate as subcontractors to major producers.
"We haven't done a national study, but the assumption is that this is a national problem and therefore deserving of attention from the national government," says Robin Munro, research director of China Labour Bulletin.
Some officials doubt reports
Even with the new charges regarding Chinese child labor infractions, some officials doubt the credibility of the China Labour Bulletin report. Constance Thomas, director of the ILO for China and Mongolia, says that without a thorough, conclusive study of the national scope of the problem, no one knows for sure what's happening. Ms. Thomas has been trying to convince the Chinese government to undertake a major prevention campaign, but the mere mention of child labor has been too sensitive.
Thomas says she doesn't see a widespread problem, especially when comparing China with countries like Pakistan and India where children age 8 and 9 are routinely found working. China's doing pretty well, she maintains.
"We're not picking up yet on any large numbers of child labor; we're just not," says Thomas.
However, she says, "There are pockets of child labor, and my concern is that they may be growing."
There are "magnet factors" that could lead to a growing reliance on child labor, Thomas says, and China, with its previous track record in avoiding child labor, should address them. The three magnets, she says, are pockets of labor shortages, increasing numbers of privately owned business, which are more prone to unscrupulous hiring, and the huge mobility of the nation's workforce.
Migrant work contributes to problem
China has as many as 200 million migrant workers who have left hometowns and provinces to fill its factories. At least 20 million of their children have been left behind with relatives and the kids are often forced to work when they reach their teenage years. Those who travel with their parents face prohibitively high school fees that can make work seem a more plausible option.
China needs to play to its strengths, says Thomas and others. For one, its standards are higher than the ILO's, which considers anything under age 13 child labor. The Chinese government has set its minimum working age as 16, with limited working hours, or 18, for dangerous jobs with longer hours.
Anita Chan, a China labor scholar at Australian National University, says quantifying the child-labor problem is difficult, particularly when the country is having a difficult time enforcing labor standards for adults. In any case, she says, the country should stay firm to its strict anti-child labor laws and enforce them. Certainly, she says, government officials must realize that in addition to giving a country political problems, child labor can have basic economic consequences.
"If you hire a lot of children, the grown-ups won't have jobs," says Ms. Chan.