Bruised flowers: China’s hidden army of child laborers

by Calum and Lijia Macleod

BEIJING — Hu Changjun was desperate to escape the poverty trap in Wuxi County in southwest China’s Sichuan Province. So she couldn’t believe her luck when a fellow villager named Changyan offered her work at a joint-venture factory in distant Beijing. “A joint venture means a foreign company, where the work is easy and the pay is good,” explained Changyan.

Even when the reality proved to be 16-hour days, seven days a week, washing and drying vegetables for only 300 yuan a month, Hu was still keen to seize her urban dream. But less than a year after starting work, her right arm was caught in an industrial drier unequipped with safety mechanisms, deforming her for life. She was just 13 years old.


Throughout China, millions of under-age workers like Hu endure slave-like and hazardous conditions toiling long hours for low pay. Many are migrants from the countryside, exploited in China’s headlong rush to capitalism. Labor laws prohibit employers from hiring workers under 16 years old, yet the benefits far outweigh the risk of incurring fines of between 3,000 and 5,000 yuan.

“My boss said she likes to use young workers because we are cheap and don’t make trouble,” Hu said.

Amid her trauma, Hu’s sole piece of good fortune was finding a lawyer to make trouble on her behalf. Their marathon court battle climaxed in July, turning a rare spotlight on a problem the Chinese government prefers to keep hidden.

“I decided to offer Hu Changjun free legal aid the first time I saw her in hospital, so tiny, so helpless,” said her lawyer, Zhang Yunzhang. “I also have a daughter, slightly younger, but all she knows is to ask me to take her to McDonald’s, while Changjun already knew how to share the family burden.”

From dawn to midnight

The teenager’s brutal introduction to China’s “socialist market economy” began in early 1996, when Changyan, a migrant who had “made it” in Beijing, returned to spend the Chinese New Year in her remote village. Hu needed little persuading to follow the older woman to the capital. The year before, Hu’s mother had given birth to a long-anticipated baby boy, after which her father stopped Hu’s schooling so she could help at home and spare the family budget.

Changyan, whom Hu addressed as “elder sister,” was on a mission to recruit cheap labor from the village. The joint venture, Beijing Jiye Food Limited, was not exactly what Hu had envisioned. The labor-intensive pickle factory belonged to a North Korean woman who had moved to Beijing, married a Chinese man and set up business in a compound rented from a farmer in the city’s Chaoyang suburbs.

“I had dreamed of going to see Tiananmen Square, but I simply had no time,” says Changjun. To meet the summer demand for cold noodles, a Korean specialty, Hu and a dozen other workers, mostly young girls, got up at five each morning and labored past midnight. They lived and slept in the compound and were barred from stepping outside.

“Child laborers are mainly employed in small rural and township enterprises where law enforcement is less strict,” says May Wong of the Asia Monitor Research Center in Hong Kong and author of a 1999 report on child labor in China. Over the past year, the issue of child labor has formed part of the United States’ vociferous debate on China’s future entry into the World Trade Organization. The powerful union lobby in the U.S. teamed with human-rights activists to criticize China’s poor record on labor conditions and work safety. Major investors like footwear giant Nike counter that their China presence actually helps curb such abuses, by requiring higher standards from their local partners.

Wong revealed that many factories forge or borrow identity cards for under-age workers, often with the help of employment agencies channeling labor to the coastal areas from the inland provinces. Factory bosses are adept at avoiding official inspections. When Wong and her colleagues went undercover to Dongguan, in Guangdong Province, they discovered that 20 young women at the Tri-S toy factory were banned from the lunch canteen that day because inspectors were due to visit.

“It may be impossible to wipe out the practice,” admits Wong. “But if local authorities really want to discover infringements, there must be ways. You don’t have to wait to deal with the issue only when an accident involving child labor occurs, such as child workers dying in a fire or explosion.”

Government sensitivity about child labor, combined with its inherently covert nature, hinders accurate estimates of the size of the problem. In the regimented society that was Mao Zedong’s China, child labor was not an issue. “Protection of children from exploitation is one of the historical legacies of socialist China,” stresses Wong. China’s impressive achievements in lowering infant mortality and improving nutrition, health care and education match those of any country in the developing world.

Although China’s child-labor problem is not as bad as in countries like India, Kenya and the Philippines, the People’s Republic remains an important factor in a global child-labor market estimated at 250 million by the International Labor Organization. A report compiled by the China Labor Bulletin in Hong Kong in 1995 estimated that there were roughly 10 million child laborers throughout the country in 1993, judging from case studies and other information such as the number of school dropouts.

The Bulletin’s authors admitted that “the critical problem in addressing the problem in China is the lack of comprehensive statistics.” In June 1996, the ILO reported that among Chinese children from 10 to 14, the percentage of those who worked was as high as 11.6 percent, or 13.3 million children. Yet in the same year, Beijing issued a white paper on the state of China’s children that ignored the problem entirely.

Today, child labor remains a highly sensitive subject in a country that is now home to over 300 million children under the age of 16 — around one-fifth of the total number of children worldwide. Officials contacted at the Ministry of Labor and Social Security claimed that no government figures are available because child labor “is not a problem in China.” The Chinese government has repeatedly turned down offers of help from foreign nongovernment organizations.

The lack of reliable data makes it hard to say whether the exploitation of children is worsening in China. At the very least, Beijing now permits more media reports on the phenomenon, formerly a taboo topic. In May this year, the investigative program “In Focus,” on China Central Television, reported how children were kidnapped from Guizhou Province in China’s impoverished hinterland to work at factories in more prosperous Zhejiang. Exhausted children as young as 10 were shown assembling Christmas-tree lights on a production line with dangerous wires hanging haphazardly. Despite working for many months, none had been paid. When asked if they missed home, all the children burst into tears. Now, all of the 84 kidnapped children have been rescued.

Coastal areas like Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong are home to some of the worst abuses. At one of hundreds of private workshops in Fujian’s Hui’an County, 14-year-old Ala was busy recently carving stone lions. On a nearby wall, a propaganda slogan declared “Strictly prohibit child labor!” as Ala expertly switched between electronic and manual chisels. “My dad said, ‘What’s the point of studying? You have to work anyway. Might as well start earning early.’ “

Hu Changjun

Ala’s coworker is only 12. They both fled when a camera was produced, and the 20-something owner appeared with a guard dog.

The report on child labor by the China Labor Bulletin concluded that “the existence of child workers is not a natural consequence of rural poverty.” Rather, the culprit is China’s educational policy, under which “local governments must raise their own funds to provide education.” Hou Wenzhuo, director of the Internal Migrants Legal Aid and Research Center, a Beijing-based NGO, also blames the crisis on local education.

At the end of last year, Hou’s center conducted research sponsored by Oxfam into the plight of Beijing’s child flower-sellers, who hawk their wares on streets lined with popular bars. Many come from You County in central China’s Hunan Province. “In that county, at least 40 percent of children drop out of school after they turn 10,” Hou explained. “It is getting increasingly expensive to send children to school, and parents prefer to spend money on things like building houses.”

Girls constitute a much higher percentage of dropouts than boys, as parents are reluctant to waste money on daughters who will only be “married off” to other families. Thirteen-year-old Li Juan sells flowers along Beijing’s Sanlitun bar strip, a three-day train ride from her village outside Chongqing in China’s southwest. Li’s education ended two years ago when her family decided it could no longer afford to support both her and her younger brother. She followed her aunt to Beijing, where her relative provides flowers, food and accommodation, and takes a large share of Li’s income.

Early each evening, Li leaves home, just behind the western railway station, to linger around Sanlitun. She moves from bar to bar, targeting men escorting young women. By closing time, around 3 a.m., the last bus is long gone. At five, she catches the first morning bus home and sleeps during the day. There are bad moments when Li is insulted by buyers, but overall “life in Beijing is more fun than at home,” she says. “I even made a foreign friend who taught me to say “Excuse me, flower, beautiful flower.’ ” When asked about her future, she admits, “I want to save enough money to go home.”

Li is lucky to work for her aunt. Most of her fellow workers front for a “flower boss,” who leaves them only 200 yuan a month. Hou’s center interviewed over 30 flower children in Beijing, over 90 percent of them girls. Though many expressed interest in going back to school, only in one case did a boy successfully resume study.

“Often, they have already lost heart in studying, and schools usually don’t welcome dropouts, particularly older kids,” said Hou.. “Selling flowers may not be the worst job for a child laborer, but some bad incidents did occur.” He told the story of one boy who ran away after being tortured and of a girl who was forced to kneel on broken glass after she failed to sell her required quota. “And working all night is bad for the growth of such young children,” he added.

As hardship grows in rural China, Hou has witnessed a sharp rise in the number of children working in the cities. “Heavy taxes and low grain prices are driving more farmers to migrate to urban areas,” he said. “To go to a state school, migrants have to pay expensive fees that few can afford. As a result, many migrant children end up working.” Hu calls on all state schools to accept poorer siblings from the country.

Besides selling flowers, children are hired to clean cars, beg or work for relatives. “In this kind of informal work relationship, it is difficult to guarantee the children’s rights,” said Hou. Hu Changjun had never even heard the term “child labor.” “I didn’t think there was anything wrong about people using child laborers,” she says. “I always helped with the farming work at home. Many of my classmates have gone to work at toy factories in Shenzhen.”

But experts like Hou Wenzhuo see clearly what’s wrong: “Using child labor has become so widespread and so serious. Since China is a poor country, many children help out at home one way or another. What is worse is that under-age workers often slave under hazardous working conditions.” In August last year, 14 people died in explosions at the Yipinhong firecracker factory, a village enterprise in Minle, Gansu Province. Half were under-age workers. The survivors said they had never been given any work-safety instruction.

But for her tragic accident, Hu would gladly have continued at the pickle factory. It was early evening on Dec. 6, 1996, when, tired and hungry, she switched off the drier to take out the last bunch of vegetables. However, the brake had failed and in a second her arm, clumsily sheathed in an adult-size glove, was crushed. When a doctor cut her thick sleeves to take an X-ray, Hu glimpsed bone sticking out of her arm and fainted.

Saving her arm required three major operations costing tens of thousands of yuan. After the initial 10,000-yuan deposit was exhausted, Hu’s North Korean boss refused to pay more and soon refused to admit that Hu had ever worked for her at all. Lawyer Zhang Yunzhang, who had chanced on the case after hearing a friend mention it casually, needed all his experience to fight for the child.

To sue the pickle firm for using child labor would have resulted in fines for both the firm and Hu’s parents, after which Hu herself would be sent home. So Zhang decided to sue for industrial injury. Thus began a three-year legal tussle. In April, 1997, the district labor-arbitration committee ordered the firm to pay urgent medical fees and part of Hu’s salary. In November 1998, the arbitration court, urged by Zhang, ordered the firm to pay Hu a final settlement of 300,000 yuan, including medical care, injury compensation and some salary.

Unhappy with the verdict, the pickle factory sued the district labor bureau for issuing a certificate of industrial injury. The Korean boss claimed that Hu Changjun had never worked there. Hu could find no one who would dare act as her witness. Her “sister” Changyan, fiance of the boss’s nephew-in-law, had moved to another city. All the other under-age workers had been dismissed after the accident.

A rare victory

On June 14 this year, the day before the court’s final verdict, Changjun waited nervously in ramshackle rented accommodation in Beijing. Three years after her accident, she had blossomed into a pretty girl, wearing a special sleeve to cover her deformed arm. “If I lose this time, I’m not sure I’ll have the courage to start living again,” she said.

When the good news finally came, lawyer Zhang laughed aloud. “It shows the government wants to protect children’s rights. But I can’t relax until I see the money from the pickle firm.” Hu giggled over the phone, expressing her gratitude to Zhang: “Without him, I don’t know what would have become of me.”

Although Hu’s case has garnered some publicity, notably for the success of legal aid in her case, it is unlikely to prove a watershed victory for under-age workers in China. Without better law enforcement, independent trade unions and cheaper education, the economic arguments for exploiting child labor remain overwhelming. A freer press is beginning to expose abuses, but most of China’s young victims have no lawyer like Zhang to protect and enforce their rights.

When Hu eventually receives her damages, the first priority will be treating her arm. “But with the rest, I want to support my brother and sister to finish their education so that they will never become child laborers like me,” she said.

Boys run from the camera at a stone-carving workshop.