China’s a source of low-cost workers, but no one said anything about slavery — until now, that is. This week has seen a slew of slave, forced and child labor stories in the media. It’s making all those analogies of modern-day China with the Dickensian image of Industrial Revolution-era England ring truer than ever.
The big one was the discovery of nearly 400 slaves in Shanxi and Henan province brick kilns, including 29 children. They were found in horrific condition, having survived regular beatings, 16-hour work days and starvation.
Then there was also the allegation that children, some as young as 12, were being forced to manufacture Olympics merchandise — caps and bags, to be precise.
In both cases authorities were caught flat-footed. The ponderously named BOCOG (the Games’ organizing committee) simply said that the factories hadn’t told them they were using child labor — which Dickensian slave master would? — and that they would investigate. The Public Security Ministry admitted today that they had known about child labor cases three years ago, but hadn’t done enough to stop its “spread”.
There’s no question that the central government would stamp out these cases if it knew about them, but all the same they beg the question: What part did the constantly rising pressure for low-cost production in China have to play in these terrible cases of exploitation and abuse? Also, were these cases symptoms of systemic opacity and corruption, or simply unstoppable instances of rogue abusers? The upshot is we can’t rule out the former until the system actually changes.
On a side note: Check out this post by Positive Solutions, the fly on the wall blog by a foreign English copy editor at China Daily, about the slavery cases implications for investigative journalism in China.