07/09/2007, 00.00
CHINA
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The everyday scandal of child workers

A reporter finds four teenagers, ages ranging from 14 to 16, working 12 hours a day in rooms filled with dust and cotton fibre in exchange for food and in-factory accommodation. Experts lament that local authorities are not stopping the use of child labour.

Beijing  (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A small quilt factory in Shaanxi's Qishan county was caught using underage workers who were forced to work 12 hours  a day only for food, this despite government threats to prosecute those who use child labour. Too often factory owners and managers feel protected by local authorities.

It all began when a reporter with the Sanqin Daily came across four kids working without any protective equipment in a processing room full of dust and cotton fibre who could not provide their age.

A long period of exposure to the cotton could lead to respiratory and skin diseases.

The children told him that they were doing the job voluntarily because they come from a very poor area and the factory owner provided food and accommodation.

The county's Labour Bureau and Bureau of Industry and Commerce heard the story and intervened, finding four workers aged 14 to 16 years, and four tonnes of industrial cotton.

The four workers, three from Gansu and the other from Hubei, will be sent home.

The factory was sealed off and the owner was ordered to report to the Labour Bureau today. He is expected be fined 5,000 yuan (US$ 650) for each underage worker.

Experts observe though child labour continues to be employed despite the government’s nationwide crackdown after last month’s discovery of more than 50 16-year-olds working as slaves in a brick kiln in Henan and Shanxi.

Groups of parents claim that at least another thousand have been abducted and are held in slave conditions in similar factories.

China’s economic boom has led to a jump in child labour. According to UNICEF more than 14 million children and teenagers are working in China.

Liu Erduo, deputy dean of the School of Labour and Human Resources at Renmin University, said child labour could not easily be eradicated on the mainland, given a historically agrarian culture where children were expected to help out.

"Children are expected to work in the field or help the family when they can," he said.

He added that the employment of child labour in smaller cities and towns was often tacitly approved by local authorities even outside the family or in factories. He urged local governments to continue conducting inspections for child workers.

Experts note that employers of child labour do not risk much more than a fine.

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