Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ahead of Olympics, China Faces Charges of Child Labor

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ahead of Olympics, China Faces Charges of Child Labor

Article excerpt

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. …

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