Child Labor and Labor Laws in China
South Korea’s Samsung was in the news last summer, with the July 10 NYT story “Despite a Pledge by Samsung, Child Labor Proves Resilient.”
After work, the three teenage girls giggle and pull at one another’s hair. But when questioned, they admit their common secret: They use false papers to work illegally here at the factory that makes mobile phone components for one of the world’s biggest brands, Samsung.
They are 14 and 15 years old, below the legal working age in China. A few weeks ago, they were living at home with their parents in a small village a six-hour drive from here, finishing middle school.
The girls explained that they worked the summer before too, and one got a blister. Should U.S. trade policy try to block imports or penalize firms that allow middle school students to work and get blisters at factories during summer?
When Americans were as poor as people in China today, children and teens worked most summers and often during the school year. Poor families can escape poverty when parents and older children working long hours. We can wish poverty didn’t exist in the world, and we can insist on transparency to avoid buying goods and services produced by children young teens.
But before we enact policies to punish firms hiring young people, and pressuring them to fire employees under a certain age, we should consider the alternatives.
The engaging movie of rural China, Not One Less, tells the story of a young girl hired to teach at a village school. The movie’s realistic portrayal of rural poverty makes clear why tens of millions of Chinese migrate illegally to cities. The young teacher is warned she won’t be paid if even one student runs away to the nearby city. Why would children run away to cities? Simply, there is less poverty in Chinese cities than in China’s rural areas.
Not One Less is compelling and has a surprise at the end. Near the end, a key scene shows the runaway boy being returned from the city and interviewed by TV reporters. The boy was alone and hungry before finding work clearing tables at a small restaurant. Finally he is discovered by the young teacher and on the drive back to his village, the reporters ask him to tell about his time “lost” in the city: “The city was wonderful,” the boy says, smiling.
At the textile factories during early industrialization in the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s, women and girls worked long hours. It was hard work, but we have hundreds of letters written to friends and families about factory life. Most letters were positive, showing that though life was hard by modern standards, workers in factories earned money and enjoyed living in or near cities, at least compared to being poorer and working long hours on isolated rural farms. (Working conditions in factories through the industrial revolutions of the U.S. and Europe is a bigger topic, with much ongoing research and debate.)
There were of course many young workers mistreated in early U.S. and U.K. factories, just as there are today in factories in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. But it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between long hours people work to survive in poor countries, and intentional mistreatment by factory owners and managers.
What about young people who want to work, and who have their parents’ permission, and for whom working twenty, forty or sixty hours a week allows their families to buy enough food and medicine to survive? We might wish that degree of poverty didn’t exist. But it does exists. Working long hours at factories producing clothes and other goods for global markets has been a pathway to escape poverty over the past two centuries.
Back to the Baptists and Bootleggers discussion of the previous post, we find a mix of well-meaning NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) and special interest groups (often unions or domestic manufacturers) lobbying to set higher wages, reduced working hours, and higher age restrictions on Chinese factories and workers.
Low-pay jobs in Chinese factories are often the best-paying opportunities for migrants from rural China. This LearnLiberty.org video “Top 3 Ways Sweatshops Help The Poor Escape Poverty,” looks at the economics of the issue with an example of a sweatshop in South Africa.