A Hong Kong labor rights organization says child labor in China is a widespread, systemic and increasingly serious problem. The group says the cause of the problem lies in the failures of China's education system. Claudia Blume reports from Hong Kong.
When news of the brickyard slavery scandal in China's Shanxi province broke in June, the Chinese public was shocked to hear that some of the laborers forced to work in inhuman conditions were children.
But in Hong Kong, the China Labor Bulletin group, which conducted field research in China, says child labor is widespread in the country and is becoming an increasingly serious problem.
There are no official data revealing how many children are working in China. There are strict laws against hiring children under 16 and Beijing this week announced it will set up a ministry-level panel to combat human trafficking - aimed at protecting women and children from forced labor and prostitution.
But Han Dongfang, founder of the China Labor Bulletin, says laws often are ignored in provinces and towns - mainly because of a lack of staff.
"For example, in a county labor bureau you have only less than 10 people working there, but you have how many factories, how many towns you need to keep watching," he said.
Han says the government needs to address why so many children in China drop out of school before finishing the mandatory nine years of education.
He thinks the root of the problem is the education system. One factor is the minimal funding many schools receive, especially in the countryside. That means parents must pay fees, which many cannot afford.
Han says another problem is that China has concentrated funding on universities in the past two decades while neglecting vocational training. Parents of less academically skilled students often see no point in keeping them in school.
"As parents you have to calculate economically for the benefit, why [do] you send the children to school after 12 year[s] old if this kid has no future for university? And you don't send them to school, you [would] rather let them work earlier, make more money," added Han.
He says it was good news when the Chinese government announced last year that it would put more funding into basic education. But he says Beijing also needs to create proper vocational training programs.
"That's easier for them to find a job and it will get more qualified, trained, skilled workers right away when they are 20," he said. "Then you will have a better economy and a better quality in the different industries."
Han also urges the government to allow trade unions and other civic groups to monitor and report on the child labor situation.