Published Jan 2013
New economy, new challenges
It's tempting to say that child labor in China is an outdated issue, at least when you look at the share of the population affected by the problem. Child labor is largely banned and very limited, however lately it has emerged again in a few factories that manufacture electronic products, for Samsung or Apple for example.
This is by no means a large-scale issue, but it shows the consequences of unbridled, unregulated capitalism in the race to bring costs down… which is a response to consumer demand for ever cheaper quality products. To put it differently, we’re all responsible. Nowadays the bigger issue lies with the exploitation of workers in China, both adults as well as young adults (between 16-20 years old) along with the growing nightmare of sexual labor.
The evolution of child labor in China
By successfully reaching its goal of universal primary education, China has indeed managed to get rid of most child labor, at least up to a certain age. A new threat to Chinese children is that of kidnapping: more and more of them disappear every day and are forced into labor, including prostitution.
It’s an entirely different problem than in most other countries. It has a lot more to do with child trafficking (along with human trafficking) and corruption. A massive cause of inequalities in China that contributes to child poverty and child labor is the situation of migrant workers. Hundreds of millions of them leave the countryside to come to the city and often have to leave their children behind.
Not to mention those who leave their rural homes straight after school and engage in labor (assembly line, construction sector) that will scar their body for a lifetime because of their young age and related work hazards (lack of protection, overwork). Within a few years, many of these kids start suffering from conditions that usually affect people over 60-70 year old.
A matter of education, propaganda …
A good way to understand the evolution of child labor in China is to compare it to its neighbour, India. In the mid-20th century, both countries had a similar problem: too few of their children were attending primary school. Where the Chinese state has been a lot more efficient than India was in the implementation of a policy promoting universal education for all Chinese kids.
India didn’t have a similar goal, but Chinese policy was a lot more effective
and straightforward. What this shows is the potential of a strong state, committed
to the development of its country, as opposed to one who will constantly delay the implementation of deep and much-needed reforms because of politics (trying to please the richer classes). The
idea isn’t to look down on the Indian government at the time, but it is clear that
engaging in profound reforms requires a tremendous amount of commitment, work and willpower
to change a society.
In this case, China was obsessed with changing the society, as any other communist state, to the point that it eventually harmed its people later on. Communist states also rely heavily on propaganda to win over their masses; therefore setting up schools everywhere in the country - a great way to indoctrinate the youth - was an obvious step in their overall development policy. This proved a positive change in the long run, when progressive economic liberalization was introduced in 1979.
… As well as culture and jobs
A common cultural aspect of China, Japan and Korea is that these countries have a culture of education, probably one of the oldest in the world. Education has long been praised and valued in these countries. It has always been the flagship of social ascension, of improving one's life and social status.
This also explains why parents in the 1950s were so keen on sending their children to school as soon as the opportunity arose. There was no need to explain them why they should educate their kids (or force them to), as it’s often been the case in most developing countries. The millenarian education system in China has always been a means of social ascension that everyone knows about.
Finally, the fact that the Chinese state was providing jobs and food for everyone (set aside the years of famine!) meant that the work of the parents alone was enough to feed their family. Hence the children could go to school, instead of having to help in the fields. This is one of the most important factors at play in the elimination of child labor in China, India or anywhere else. The best way to end the problem is indeed to make sure that the parents are earning enough to feed every mouth under their roof. Otherwise there’s no point in building schools, the kids will most likely stay at home to help with work.
India in the meantime lacked a comprehensive strategy, was facing tensions about the nature of education across different communities and was too slow in simply implementing its policies. Thirty years after China’s independence in 1949, universal primary education had helped wipe out child labor in China. However to this day, both education and child labor remain a problem in India.
Post 1979 - the role of educated parents
If the first generation under the Chinese Communist Party was largely educated at least at primary school level, the long-term impact of this simple change was colossal for the economic development of China and the decline of child labor. Scores of studies dating back from the 1960s – to begin with the famous Coleman Report in 1966 - have shown that the more education the parents have, the better their kids perform at school. The reasons for this are diverse and vary for each country but overall you can imagine that if parents understand the value and potential of education they are much more likely to push their children to further their studies.
Better yet, when it comes to children’s performance the education of the parents appears to be even more important than the quality of schools and teachers. In particular, the level of education of the mother is as much - if not more - important than that of the father. And communism, with all its disastrous effects, has at least brought better gender equality in China and opened primary schools to girls very early on.
Other effects of education on child labor in China
The level of education of parents however isn’t everything. If they can hardly make a living, they just won’t have the time to help their kids with their homework, as opposed to parents who live more comfortably (and who can at least hire someone to help). This is a difficult trade-off between the time invested in helping your children and the time spent at work to feed them.
Strangely, a recent study has also shown that the more educated the mother is, the better the grades of its sons will be. This can be because they’re more directly involved in their education or because they won’t suffer as much loss from this time investment than the father would.
The new face child
The core issue with child labor in China - or anywhere else - is not just that it ruins the childhood of millions along with their chance to ever go to school. It’s also that more than half of them are usually involved in hazardous work that will impair their physical and/or mental development for life.
Working excessively long hours, operating machinery built
for adults, bonded labor (or debt bondage), prostitution, sexual harassment and malnutrition are as many plagues to
millions of children. Too few studies are actually
investigating what is happening on the ground to help us understand the face of modern-day slavery and its mechanisms. This is the sort of research we need to better understand what’s going on
in these high-tech factories producing goods for Samsung and other big
electronic companies, who aren’t always aware of working conditions on the inside. (And do they really want to know?)
The economics of child
labor in China
Research has proven that a “side-effect” of globalization was to increase the demand of child labor, through the fast-paced growth of an export industry that demands huge amounts of workers at the lowest price. In a country like China, poor children from rural areas are available by the hundreds of millions… a very tempting source of cheap labor. This explains why too many child traffickers still manage to avoid government control.
However, if well-managed, an economy open to trade can also support its poor workers and increase their minimum wage. This is a good incentive for them to invest in their children and break the vicious cycle that forces them to send their kids to work. As for what the government can do, it’s important to make it easy for rural adult workers to be seamlessly integrated into cities – i.e. making the internal visa policy (known as "hukou") more flexible - or else employers will turn to black labor and possibly children. Favoring foreign investments in modern industries which require skilled labor - therefore adults - has also been a great way to stop child trafficking.
On the other hand, the government's attemp to help financially children engaged in illegal labor has had a negative effect: as the allowance was set too low, they didn’t leave their jobs and instead they ended up being paid less by their illegal employers (well they're already receiving government money, aren’t aren't they? That's handy!).
Moral corruption of the society
In the end, opening a country’s trade and borders was just a (long-ish) transition and therefore had only a short term impact on child labor in China. The long term success will lie in profound moral, social and economic changes. This is a long process that takes time, nevertheless we’re also witnessing a rise in the moral corruption of China as its citizens have been officially encouraged to “become rich” and pursue material gain for the past 20 years. It's been the new government mantra and the new value of a society.
Nothing wrong with living comfortably in itself but for some people it has become their lives’ sole purpose, by all means
necessary. This explains the development of the black market in China, a much
more difficult environment to monitor and regulate. It's only now that the new government in China (since Nov. 2012) has recognised the importance of fighting the inequalities that lie at the heart of the society.
In a sense, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is directly responsible because it only draws its legitimacy from the promise of economic prosperity. Since it’s no longer a communist economy, the Party has indeed replaced all previous social values by those of nationalism (pride in China) and prosperity - the idea that everyone would be able to get rich.
When this is the national moral value that is officially upheld, you can understand the influence it has on average citizens. If leaders are to show the example, they're telling the people seek superficial and material gains more than anything else.
Of course this is a mainstream effect, and no generalization is possible, but it does explain to some extent the extreme behavior of those who engage ruthlessly in child trafficking. It’s easy money, and both supply (poor rural kids) and demand (rich urban adults) are abundant.