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Chinese factories, flouting labor laws, hire children

By David Barboza

New York Times News Service

LIANGSHAN, China — The mud and brick schoolhouses in the lush mountain villages of this remote part of southwestern China are dark and barebones in the best of times. These days, they also lack students.

Residents say children as young as 12 have been recruited by child labor rings, equipped with fake identification cards, and transported hundreds of miles across the country to booming coastal cities, where they work 12-hour shifts to produce much of the world’s toys, clothes and electronics.

"Last year I had 30 students. This year there are only 14. All the others went outside to find work," said Ji Ke Xiaoming, 35, a primary school teacher whose students in Erwu Village are mostly ages 12 to 14. "You know, we are very poor. Some families can’t even afford a bag of salt."

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China is now investigating whether hundreds, perhaps thousands, of poor children of the Yi ethnic minority group in Liangshan were lured or even kidnapped to work in factories that are increasingly desperate for the kind of cheap labor that powered China to prosperity over the past two decades.

Labor recruiters — government investigators and some local residents portray them as con men — have brought together ethnic minorities untouched by economic development in their mountainous isolation, and factory owners in the prime export manufacturing zones of southern Guangdong province, near Hong Kong.

Exporters have struggled to adjust to soaring inflation, a fast-rising currency and, with some irony, stricter enforcement of labor laws. Using child workers from a remote region has provided a temporary, albeit illegal, solution.

A scandal involving Liangshan’s children first came to light late last month, when Southern Metropolis, a state-run newspaper, reported that as many as 1,000 school-age workers from the area were employed in manufacturing zones near Hong Kong.

Last week, the authorities in Liangshan said they had detained several people for recruiting children and illegally ferrying them off to factories. And officials in Dongguan, one of the manufacturing zones where the children worked, said that they had "rescued" more than 160 young people from factories. The legal minimum working age in China is 16.

Now, officials have begun to play down the scandal, saying there is little evidence of widespread violations of child labor laws.

But residents of Liangshan say abject poverty, drug abuse and a lack of jobs have forced many children to head for factories. Sometimes it is with their parents’ permission. Other times, children disappear, on their own or with job recruiters, and then call home from a factory dormitory, hundreds of miles away.

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