Small Hands in China’s Garment Industry

On a particularly rainy afternoon, a student of mine, who is 10-years old, trudged into the classroom wearing a stylish black puffer jacket. It was only until I strolled around the classroom that I realised that the back of his jacket was emblazoned with two words: Just Fuck. Despite the casual bravado of his fashion sense, fortunately, he had no idea what it meant. It is a common phenomenon to see people wear t-shirts with hilarious sentences of broken English, or glaringly fake designer clothing that have anagrams of well-known brands. Yet it is unsurprising that there is an abundance of cheap low quality clothing for sale, as China is not only the largest manufacturer of garments in the world but also the largest exporter and consumer.         

What is the condition of China’s garment industry? With over 100,000 garment manufacturers employing over 10 million people, around 40-50 billion pieces of clothing is produced every year. In 2013, the total value of China’s textile and clothing exports amounted to $273.96 billion, ranking the highest in the world with India in second place with $40.19 billion. China is undisputedly the clothes factory of the world. 

However, due to increased wages in manufacturing, worsening market conditions and RMB appreciation, there has been a lower international demand and foreign investment because of rising labour costs. This in turn adds further pressure on an atmosphere of cost competitiveness, thus driving employers to seek new forms of cheap labour. Although there are no official statistics relating to child labour in China, most commentators put the number of child workers between 10 and 20 million. Child labour in China is prevalent in labour-intensive industries such as toy production, construction, food production and textiles. 

How do children end up working in the clothing industry? A growing economy coupled with growing economic disparity is drawing juvenile labourers to a factory setting. For children from impoverished rural backgrounds, there is often not enough incentive to attend schools because of either a lack of access to education due to poor infrastructure, or because of the necessity to financially support their families, particularly if either one of their parents of both have left home to seek higher wages.    Despite official regulations banning the employment of minors under the age of 16 and strict penalties against offenders, employers are still able to hire children because of local corruption and the lack of government enforcement. One of the main channels fuelling the employment of children is schools, such as vocational institutions with their internship programmes. 

For example, two students of my neighbour, who is a teacher at a different school, have been recently employed to work in a garment factory as a part of a summer job scheme despite being only 14 and 15. The school had in fact hired out these children and forged ID cards to show an older age of the two students. The school will take a percentage off the children’s wages. Unfortunately, this is not an anomaly. Factory employers are willingly using child workers, as do not have to pay into any social security schemes and children can be exploited to work longer hours at lower wages. 

Government endorsed work-study programmes embody the severity of the situation, in which in 2007 there were more than 400,000 middle and junior high schools, which are for children ages 12 to 16, running agricultural and manufacturing schemes. According to Human Rights Watch, in 2004, proceeds from work-study programmes generated over ¥10 billion. 

What is the situation like for child labourers? As claimed by China Labour Watch, Chinese textile factories have some of the worst labour conditions of all Chinese factories. Child labourers often work the same hours as adults, which is usually 12 hours everyday or more since they are paid by the piece. A reporter from Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Newspaper discovered employees as young 12 working 16 hours per day during peak production times. When asked where their sleeping quarters were, they replied that they slept on or under their worktables.               

In numerous investigations, particularly in southern and coastal areas of China where there are large clusters of garment industries, workshop conditions are extremely poor. Workers often lack adequate protective gear when engaging in hazardous practices with high temperatures and toxic gases. For example, in order to produce trendy distressed jeans, sandblasting and chemical spraying are used in the process, which create a deadly mix of silica sand, fabric fibre and chemical vapour. Extended inhalation of these particles cause severe respiratory diseases and silicosis.                  

The penalties against employers found to be using child labour consists of fines and suspension of operating licenses, however, during labour bureau inspections child workers are simply hidden away. With lax government monitoring and negligence of officials enforcing labour legislation, an increasing number of child labourers are being employed using fake or borrowed ID cards. China Central Television had even exposed children as young as 13 working in sweatshop factories in Guangdong, in which their apprenticeships appeared to be technically legal because the parents had signed waivers. 

There has been widespread news coverage on many cases of child labour in the Chinese media, which is revealing the extent of child labour practices. Reports have focused on illegal job agents who are recruiting children from rural areas. By paying parents and local authorities a portion of the children’s wages, these agents sell child workers to various factories with an agreement on a minimum 300 working hours a month contract at ¥2.5-5 per hour. Hundreds of children are being placed in electronic and textile factories. 

In April this year, Xinhua News reported the death of Wang Pan, a 14-year old boy that worked at Foshan Zhiya Underwear Company for 40 days. Despite the cause of death being noted as undetermined by the police, the child’s relatives blame excessive work hours and overtime. This is hardly surprising since according to an employee, new hires earn ¥0.15 (£0.016) for completing one garment, and Wang Pan apparently earned ¥4,100 (£430).      

As the world’s largest clothing manufacturer continues to supply foreign markets in an increasing climate of cost competitiveness, China’s exploitative labour environment will continue to use small hands as cogs in the big garment machine.

 -- Anthony Ho --