A news video taken undercover at a factory last week revealed how common child laborers are in Chinese clothing factories and the black market chain behind this phenomena. After going viral, it has led to discussions on whether there should be a change in regulations regarding underage work and the aftermath.
In a dimly lit room, a group of workers were busy toiling at their sewing machines. Their heads were bowed, their fingers busy untangling threads, fixing zippers or stapling buttons onto shirts.
The workers at the factory all had immature faces. Some had dyed hair, some skinny arms and some had light fuzz growing on their chins. Most of the workers were in fact teenagers; many were under 16, the legal minimum age of employment in China.
This scene was revealed in a recent clip by online news portal Pear Video, in which two reporters went undercover in a factory in Changshu, East China's Jiangsu Province to shoot footage and interviews with workers, employers and agents to reveal a vast network of black market deals that stretches across half the country.
Black market chain
Starting in September, videographers Han and Zhou went around factories in Changshu trying to get a job.
Changshu is a city of clothing manufacturers. In every corner of the city, you can find a small workshop that has just a few machines and workers in a rented house.
They eventually chose a workshop that made jackets and had lots of young-looking faces among its staff. It was a three-story house and the boss rented two of the floors, one for work and one as a dormitory. Han's job was to sew buttons on jackets every day and his partner was Xiaoxiong (pseudonym), a 15-year-old boy of Miao ethnicity, who had already worked there for over six months.
There were about 20 workers in the factory, three of them were 15, the rest were between 16 to 18 years old.
If the pair didn't work there themselves, they never would've imagined how difficult this job could be, Zhou wrote in a story published in Pear Video's WeChat account. Han lived in a 10-person dormitory that had no bathroom. If he needed to relieve himself, he had to walk to the public toilet in the village. There was no hot water to shower.
According to the video, they got up at 7:30 am every day, started working as soon as they finish brushing their teeth and didn't stop till late in the night, doing a total of more than 15 hours of work every day. Han recounted to Beijing Time Media Group he had to fix buttons and zippers on 720 jackets per day. In such an atmosphere, Han had to hurry every time he went to the bathroom.
"[The boss] told me 300 shirts a day to begin with, then he raised it to 500, then to 600 in August. I told him I can't do any more, he said he won't add anymore, but now it's 720," Xiaoxiong says in the video.
Long working hours don't translate to high salaries. An anonymous factory owner said in the video that "They are from Yunnan, they are cheap, only about 2,000 yuan (0) a month." He added, "I've got a 16-year-old worker, he's been with me for three years."
The boss provided only lunch and dinner and the workers needed to buy their own breakfast. During mealtimes, the boys squatted on sidewalks holding bowls in their hands and gulping down their food, as if the whips of their boss were at their back.
They rested on small, iron-framed hardboard beds at night. There were only eight beds for 10 workers so two had to share a bed. But most were small-boned boys so it was manageable, Han told Beijing Time. The room only had a small window and reeked of damp, and sheets and pillows were blackened with dirt.
Most of the children in the video were from Southwest China's Yunnan Province, recruited from small villages in mountainous regions. It has become a mature, frequently exercised black market chain.
In a follow-up video shot in Yunnan, an agent based in the provincial capital Kunming proudly told Pear Video, "If you want young workers, we can guarantee you young workers… of course you have to use young workers in a clothing factory, the young ones do a better job."
The workers weren't paid until the end of the year. If anyone wanted to leave, the boss would take away his ID card, bank card and cell phone, and even use violence to force him to stay.