A few weeks ago I went to visit some new factories with a client. We had a tight trip, 15 factories in 5 days. These factories had been pre screened by our Hangzhou office but, as always, you don’t really know a factory until you visit it.
We visited one of the factories, in Guangdong province, and we had a suprise when we met some kids working at the workshop (not the first time that happens to me). Of course, my client said inmediately that we can not work with this factory. We made the minimum not to be unpolite, and left.
Afterwards, going to the next factory, we were discussing about this issue. It’s not as simple as it looks (children = bad factory)
The problem here is caused by the Chinese residence system. Every Chinese has a residence permit, the famous hukou. This document states where you live. If you live in the place written in your Hukou, you have a right to education for your children, medical care, etc. If you live in a different place, you don’t have right to anything. What about all those hundreds of millions of people in the West of China that go to the coast to work (basically hand labour of all Chinese factories)? They can not change the hukou, so they are totally unprotected. Until now most chose to leave the family behind and go to the coast to work, and see the family once a year (for Chinese New Year). So the father would go to the coast, then the mother, and both worked on the coast and left the children with the grandparents.
All this began 20 years ago, and now some studies begin to appear about all the children left behind by their parents. The education level of the grandparents in charge of this children is very low, and all the studies show that the the education and degree of control they give is non existant in most of the cases. Schooling indexes are very low, drug addictions and failure rates are high…
So between two evils, many workers increasingly choose to bring their children to the coast with them. But as they don’t live in the place that their hukou says, these children have no right to school or medical care, or anything. And parents are poor, they can not afford school or nursery. So these children spend their days on the street, the cure worse than the disease. And many workers prefer them at the factory, near them, than roaming the streets.
The logical solution would be for the government to allow changes in the hukou. But they understandably fear that if they do, there will be a wave of rural people moving to the cities. The government acknowledges the problem, and it’s an issue that they have had in the agenda of the last meetings, and they are already working on a restructuring of the hukou system.
What has happened in recent years? Many men and women who went to the coast to work grew up, found a partner, married and had kids. Due to the current system, having kids out of your hometown is a problem, so many of them chose to go back to their hometown, reducing the pool of available workers near the coast, where most of the factories are. This is one of the reasons behind the increase of the labour cost in China in the last years. If the Chinese government really liberalize the Hukou system, this trend could reverse, causing a downward pressure in the hand labour cost.
So what do we do meanwhile? In our case, we can not work with factories that employ children, due to ethical codes signed with most of our clients. So, when we visit a factory and see children around, we stop contact with them. Is this fair? The reply is not clear, after the visit I talked to the factory that we visited and they apologized, saying that good workers were not easy to keep, and that many of them asked the factory to give small work to their children to be able to have them around. And it’s clear that the family is better than in the countryside, both in living standards and in opportunities for the future. But this is not an excuse for employing children, they should find alternative ways. If factories want to keep the good workers, they could pay kindergarten or school for the children of the workers.
Child labour is a complex issue. But kids do not belong in a factory. Anyway, a reform of the Hukou system is needed urgently.