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Child Labour in China


Subject Law and governance Pages 9 Style APA


  • Introduction

The propagation and subsequent application of the liberal economic theory has led to increased deregulation of local and international markets. According to Peksen, Blanton and Blanton (2017), the liberal economic theory, which is responsible for neoliberal globalization has been associated with the adoption of market oriented reform policies namely reduced protectionism, eliminating price controls, deregulated capital markets, reduced state influence, and lowering of trade barriers. As a result, neoliberal economies present advantages and disadvantages. For instance, liberal markets are more competitive thus consumers have access to a variety of goods and services. The intensive competitive equally translates to lower prices for most commodities. On the contrary, it has encouraged unethical and immoral conduct among some firms with weak corporate governance. This challenge is mostly prevalent in developing and emerging economies which lack strong regulatory framework to safeguard its citizens against exploitative practices. One of the domineering ethical concerns which equally points at the disadvantages created by neoliberal globalization is the persistent issue of child labour. International Labour Organization (ILO) defines child labour as the practice of subjecting children to work that denies them their childhood, while degrading their dignity and exposing them to harmful mental and physical development (ILO, 2020). Fairtrade International seconds this definition adding that child labour exploits children and interferes with their normal schooling activities, development, and leisure.

Some of the common and worst forms of child labour around the globe include involvement in domestic service, commercial sexual exploitation and child trafficking, serfdom and debt bondage, children in armed conflict, mining, and involvement in agriculture (Liukkunen, 2016). Most of these activities go unnoticed by the local authorities, while in some communities, the practices of child labor are deeply engraved and normalized. These differences in cultural perception makes it hard to fully address the issue of child labour across developing and emerging economies. Guided by this backdrop, this research paper uses the case of China to argue that the exploitation of child labour is made possible by neoliberal globalization. In support of this argument, the paper is divided into various sections, such as exposition of child labour regulations around the globe, analyzing reasons for child labor, and its correlation to education. By addressing these sections, this paper answers the questions why child labour continues to be a major global issue and further dissects its relationship to the Chinese manufacturing, agriculture, and service sectors.

  • Child Labor Regulations around the Globe and China

Child labour is blamed for subjecting children to work at the expense of their wellbeing and education. This exploitative practice denies the children an opportunity to formal education thus subjecting them to a cycle of poverty and social inequalities. To curb these practices, ILO and national governments around the globe have worked on regulatory and legal frameworks to safeguard children against the vice. Golo et al. (2018) explain that children had traditionally been used on farmlands and doing household chores. These practices are considered necessary as they nurture children into responsible adults. However, the Industrial Revolution triggered a rise in demand for child labour services. Industries continued to employ children because of their flexibility and ability to reach small spaces. Likewise, the companies could exploit their labour in exchange for lower wage rates unlike the adults who demanded higher pay. This work exposed children to danger as they often lost their lives while others were maimed. Prussia was the first country to discredit child labour in 1839. The laws were then adopted by Europe and then the USA. Britain introduced the Factory Act in 1839 while France enacted similar laws in 1841 restricting the use of child labour.

The USA implemented the Fair Labour Standards Act in 1938 restricting the number of hours children could work while also setting the minimum wage for adult workers. Additionally, the laws banned the use of children below 16 years of age in mining and manufacturing plants. This law was constitutionalized in 1941 by the US Supreme Court. Other countries have since emulated some of these laws. The widespread application and enforcement of child labour laws begun with the formation of UNICEF and ILO as mandated by the Treaty of Versailles. These organizations have actively worked towards providing information on child labour and creating awareness through programs such as International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC).  In the initial years, most labour laws only applied in the Global North or western countries, however, the laws are being accepted by the Global South or the Eastern economies. For instance, most Pacific Island and Asian countries approved child labour laws in 2014. Bala and Sood (2019) reports that the child labour laws across the globe set the age limit for children laborers, and outline punishment for offenders of child trafficking and sexual exploitation of children. Also, most countries in Sub-Sahara Africa had approved child labour laws by 2014.

Janzen (2018) elaborates that since inception, ILO has worked towards creating universal child labour laws. This statement is evident by the fact that the organization has 23 conventions in its constitution to regulate adult and child labour. The laws include setting the minimum wage for child labour, protection against trafficking and forced labor, conditions of work, night time working conditions, safety standards and workplace hazards. Out of these laws, strict measures have been taken to stop child labor. Most of the conventions on child labour are described under Article 3 (ILO, 2020). One of the conventions is titled the Minimum Age Convention. It sets the minimum age limit for persons working in areas such as mining, heavy manual labour, and operating heavy machinery at 18 years. The convention further notes that children in the age of 13 – 15 can perform light duties as long as they are not dangerous and derail them from formal education. It completely restricts children below 13 years from working. The Worst Forms of Child Labour convention notes that people below 18 years cannot be enslaved, used for drug trafficking, prostitution, and pornography.

Today, more than 186 countries are members of the International Labour Organization. Being a member means vowing to adhere to the conventions on child labour and other labour practices. In addition to ILO, countries and international agencies have instituted regulations to safeguard children. This includes the UN Convention on Rights of Children (CRC) which is a human rights treaty that establishes rights for children. Somalia and the USA are yet to ratify to the CRC convention. Apart from these laws, there are industry specific consumer laws that protect the supply chain from exploiting child labour. Examples include the California Transparency in Supply Chain Act which seeks to eradicate the use of labour from slaves and trafficked humans. This act encourages its members to audit their supply chain and report on their supply chain activities. The UK has the 2015 UK Modern Slavery Act requiring companies making more than £36 million annually to publish and publicize their human trafficking and slavery statement each year.

Specific to China, the country has lax laws on child labour. Regulations banning child labour were endorsed in 2002. According to Dvivedi (2020), the laws are aimed at regulating child labour and protecting the mental and physical well-being of minors. The laws ensure that children go to school but are not completely cut off from the labour market. Article 2 of the law prohibits the use of minors under 16 years, however, it makes exemptions noting that children can only be employed under special circumstances. Those who violate the child labour laws should be fined 5000 Yuan per month for each minor used. These laws have been ineffective in addressing the problem of child labour which persists in Henan and Shanxi provinces. Forced labour is often a national scandal in China. The restructuring of industries as well as economic development undertaken over the past 10 years has enabled the manufacturing sector to move away from labour intensive and low cost activities therefore reducing the demand for child labour which is cheap. Nonetheless, student interns above 16 years are frequently used to provide flexible labour when in high demand. The failing school systems in rural areas has been blamed for the high rate of school dropouts who opt to become underage workers. Additionally, China uses the Compulsory education laws to ensure children are educated to prevent school dropouts. As much as China has made these efforts, its commitment to eradicating child labour continues to be questioned by the fact that the government does not produce official statistics on child labour. The persistence of this challenge has been promoted by lack of governance, inadequate educational support for children mostly in the rural areas, high demand for cheap labour, and societal norms allowing the use of minors.

  • Child Labour around the World and China

These joint efforts in fighting child labour has led to decline in use of minors by to 168 million in 2012, compared to 246 million in 2000. Today, one in 10 children are subjected to exploitative child labour through trafficking. In total, more than 152 million children are involved in child labour. Most of these children are driven into labour by poverty. Most of the children are refugees and migrants. This problem is worse among girls who are exposed to the triple burden of household chores, work, and school. This burden has exposed them to higher risks of exclusion and poverty. Dvivedi (2020) attributes the challenge of eradicating child labour in China to its large population. Demographically, China is the largest country in Asia followed by India. Geographically, China is the third largest landmass after Canada and Russia. The country has 22 provinces, 33 administrative units, 5 regions, and four municipalities (Tianjin, Shanghai, Beijing, and Chongqing. China operates a socialist government where most organizations are owned by the state. Since 1949, the government was responsible for regulating labour practices to foster creation of optimal employment opportunities. However, the inefficiencies of these organizations led to their diversification and privatization. The role of the central government in regulating businesses has changed significantly since the onset of the 21st century (Dvivedi, 2020). Instead, business activities are determined more by market forces and private initiatives. The government’s role has been reduced to monitoring and making policies to stimulate development across areas that adversely affect the economy.

The introduction of urban economic reforms coupled with the urge to integrate China into the international economic system have contributed towards the increased pressure on its firms. Given the intensive rivalry among international firms, Chinese firms are forced to seek the lowest possible labour costs to minimize production costs and resultant prices of its products and services. Another shortcoming that has seen China become vulnerable to violation of Child labour laws is the fact that the country has a high population of over 1.4 billion people (Worldometer, 2020). Because of this population, the government is unable to provide meaningful job opportunities for all its citizens and this makes them predisposed to child labour. Similarly, most of the industrial activities are labour intensive yet low paying. Most graduates shun from these jobs because of the meager financial incentives. The firms therefore opt to use children who provide intensive labour at low or no pay. In China, most children below 16 years are involved in manufacturing and service sectors in the pretext of internship while those in rural China, such as areas in Gansu are mostly involved in agricultural farms (He, 2016; Nguyen, 2017). As a result of prioritizing working, their academic achievement deteriorate over time and force them to completely drop out of school.

  • Deep Rooted Reasons for Child Labour in China

According to Abdullahi, Noor, Said and Baharumshah (2016) child labour is a major issue in the developing and emerging economies. These authors cite figures by the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour noting that 168 million minors are actively involved in economic activities globally thus accounting for 11% of the total population in the world. All these children work for long hours in unhealthy environments, with meager pay, and no medical cover for emergencies. Abdullahi et al. (2016) therefore argue that child labour is a practice encouraged by parents. They explain that most households with meagre income force their children to drop out of school and help their parents in fending for the family. On the contrary, families with high income prefer taking their children to school to prevent them from child labour. They therefore speculate that poverty is a leading factor in explain the pervasiveness of child labour. To second their research, it is common place that poor countries have more cases of violation of human rights and involvement of minors in the job market which results in a cycle of poverty passed on across generations. This sentiments hold for China where households regions with high education disparity reported higher rates of child labour (Zhang, 2017). These regions are held in poverty traps which make it hard for them to educate their children to be competitive in the country’s job market. As a result, the children continue to work under exploitative conditions for meagre pay to complement their parent’s income.

Some commentators have blamed neoliberal globalization on the exploitation of child labour in China. Peksen et al. (2017) associate neoliberalism with the adoption of market-oriented policy reforms such as elimination of price controls, lowering of trade barriers, reduced state interference in the economy, and deregulation of capital markets through privatization. As much as China has historically had challenges with the management of labour practices, neoliberal globalization has contributed towards its exacerbation. For instance, China is in race to become the largest economy in the globe after the USA. The country is currently ranked as the second largest economy with an average annual economic growth rate of 9.52%. The growth has been reported since 1989 until 2019. Its nominal GDP is estimated at $14.14 trillion while its GDP in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) is $27.31 trillion (Wang & Zhou, 2016). China has reached this position by investing in aggressive industrialization. Given the competitiveness of global industries especially in Western economies, China had to lower its production costs to compete effectively. To achieve this, the government tolerates the involvement of minors in form of internship opportunities which help in lowering labour costs in labour intensive industries such as agriculture, service sector, and manufacturing industries. Fotopoulos (2017) explains that child labor is cheaper compared to professional labour which is costly to the affected sectors.

                Cultural norms further cement the popularity of child labour in China (Chatterjee & Ray, 019). Most developing and emerging economies, such as South Africa, China, and India have many youths and children compared to the ageing population. This issue is worsened by migrants in China which increases the number of children and youths compared to the adults. Today, China has more than 277.5 million migrant workers. Most of these migrants are of Chinese ethnicity. Traditionally, these ethnicities believe that children should be involved in meaningful work as a way of nurturing hard work and preparing them for future responsibilities. Because of these beliefs, it becomes hard to differentiate between legitimate child labour and illegitimate child labour. For instance, most of the Chinese households in the rural areas have a surplus supply of children. This statement is made by Knight, Deng and Li (2011) who argue that China has always been a surplus labor economy. However, the rapid economic development following its economic reforms have scarcity of migrant labor in the cities. Contrary, there is a surplus of unskilled labor mostly from children and youths. In such cases, the government is forced to remain silent on such issues because it is a cultural norm for children to be involved in economic activities (DesAutels et al. 2015). It is because of this reason that most poor migrant households prefer residing in the rural areas where the parents can collectively work with their children to elevate the household income by working in farms.

  • Correlation between Education and Child Labour in China

There exists a strong correlation between child labour and educational levels. As noted by Fors (2012), child labour predisposes children to miss education. Similarly, access to education could help improve the wellbeing of a child and keep them engaged at school thus protecting against child labour. These two topics are therefore intertwined on different fronts. In line with these sentiments, Guo, Huang and Zhang (2019) explain that the development in the education sector in China has meaningfully contributed towards the reduction of poverty, while boosting prosperity among most households. As a result, the country has also reported a decrease in the rate of child labor. Assuming that the government invests more in developing the educational capabilities of the country, then China will eradicate more instances of child labor as it will have a readily available pool of skilled and semi-skilled workers. As much as educational development could be a game changer in the fight against child labor, the country is still debating on the topics of educational equity and educational quality.

In a more detailed exposition, Tang, Zhao and Zhao (2018) note that by 2010, more than 7.74% of children aged below 15 years in China were working illegally. The intensity of the child labor practices denied these minors access to education. In total, each child laborer worked for an estimated 6.75 hours. This trend reduced their time to study by 6.42 hours each day. The lost study hours disadvantaged these children as they continued to underperform compared to their counterparts who spent the hours lost on educational activities. Surprisingly, 90% of the children in child labor were forced to combine schooling and involvement in economic activities. The place of residence was a more significant determinant of the correlation between education and child labor. Girls were more disadvantaged because they were not only involved in child labor, but also lost more time for study to help in household chores. This is known as the triple burden and it has greatly disadvantaged the girl child in China compared to their male counterparts.

These empirical figures justify the relationship between education and child labor. Tang et al. (2018) thus reinforce the sentiments that participation in child labor increases chances that a child will underperform, become discouraged, and drop out of school. Probably, this correlation also explains why the rural areas in China have a high rate of school dropout since children living in these areas are more likely to be involved in child labor especially on the firms and in the service industry. Interestingly, counter study by Liu and Hannum (2017) predict that poverty during childhood years impedes educational attainment. Longitudinal data collected from China used the hazard model of school dropout in children to predict the correlation between education and child labor. The model showed that chronic poverty contributed towards a lack of education which increased chances of a person opting for child labor.

  • Conclusion

This paper sought to research and elaborate on the topic of child labour. The primary theme was to use China as a case study on child labour and explore this topic in detail presenting empirical data and findings from authoritative sources. The main argument is that child labour in China and across most emerging and developing economies is being fuelled by neoliberal globalization.  To establish the validity of these claims, the paper identifies regulations on child labour from different countries. It is noted that regulation of the involvement of children in labour was first undertaken in Prussia in 1839. However, the industrial revolution was marked with an increased demand for laborer. Children were preferred because they provided cheap unskilled labour and were flexible thus could do tasks that the adults could not. UNICEF and ILO have collectively played an important role in expressing the need for laws against child labour. In response, they have managed to garner support from 186 countries that endorse the ILO conventions against child labor. In China, the government has acknowledged the need to eradicate child labour. However, it could require more time for the issue to be fully settled since the government does not provide official figures on the involvement of children. In fact, the child labour laws are lax and their implementation is often erratic.

In regard to child labour practices across the globe, there are more than 168 million minors working illegally. The number has reduced compared to the 246 million who were actively working in 2000. In China, 7.7% of the total population of children below 16 years were involved in child labour. Some of the deep rooted reasons for the continued use of child labour range from neoliberal globalization where the intensive rivalry on the global market forces Chinese firms to use cheap labour to realize the cost leadership advantage. This is the reason China has cheaper goods on the international market. Other reasons for persistent child labour problem globally and in China is poor parenting where parents encourage children to drop out of school to help raise income for their households. In addition, the cultural norms across most developing and emerging economies encourage the involvement of children in labour practices. The last section of this paper highlights the correlation between child labour and education. This section dissects the relationship between these variables by considering different points of view. For instance, lacking education could make a child vulnerable to child labour. Similarly, child labour could make a child to miss education as they dedicate more time to work than studying. The overall effect of the relationship between the two variables is a cycle of poverty where families that educate their children continue to flourish while those dependent on income from child labour continue to live in poverty.



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