Boy's death focuses attention on child labor

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Tragic death of a 14-year-old in Dongguan factory emphasizes more must be done to eradicate practice

The unexplained death of a 14-year-old boy at an electronics factory in Dongguan, Guangdong province, has led to renewed calls to eliminate child labor in China, where World Day against Child Labour is celebrated on Wednesday.

Liufu Zong was in his Dongguan Jinchuan Electronics Co Ltd dormitory and did not wake up at about 7 am, on May 21.

His roommates said they checked to see if he was all right when he did not wake, but his body was cold, so they rushed him to hospital.

They added he returned to the dormitory the night before about 10 pm and seemed normal.

Police investigating the case discovered the boy concealed his real name and age from his employer.

A third-party employment agency sent him to the electronics factory using an identity card in the name of "Su Longda", who is older than 18.

According to China's labor law, 16 is the minimum age for employment.

"It was difficult for us to determine that the boy was underage and he looked similar to the individual pictured on the ID card," commented Cheng Yun, the human resources director at Dongguan Jinchuan Electronics.

Cheng said the company has about 600 contract employees, and about 300 others who signed contracts with employment agencies.

The boy's father, Liufu Kuanyuan, said his son was healthy before he headed to Dongguan as a migrant worker.

"He took cold showers during the winter and he rarely had colds or fevers," he said.

He said he believes his son dropped dead due to overwork.

"He worked about four or five extra hours every day. How can a 14-year-old bear working so long?"

He said he had advised his son over the phone to quit the job since he often complained that it was exhausting.

HR director Cheng, however, believes that the boy's death may have been due to his lifestyle.

"I heard from his roommates that he often went to Internet cafes and occasionally would not return to the dormitory. When he did stay in he often played with his phone until late at night."

However, Cheng confessed that her company did not provide health checks when recruiting workers and instead only asked employment agencies to send "healthy workers".

Deng Zhijian, a local authority human resources official, said records showed workers often did overtime at the electronics factory.

Zong's job was to test computer motherboards and he was paid 11 yuan ($1.79) an hour, and worked about 50 extra hours a month, after starting work on March 1.

Zong dropped out from school at 12. He helped his farmer father provide for the family of six, which included a grandfather in his 80s, two younger half-brothers and his stepmother.

He took part-time jobs with his father in nearby villages doing construction work, until February, when he went to the industrial city of Dongguan with friends.

Chen Zhaocai, Zong's relative, who is handling the case on behalf of the boy's family, said he believes overwork and a toxic workplace environment caused the boy's death.

"I became more certain of this after the factory refused to allow the boy's father to go to see his workplace," said the 75-year-old.

Zong's corpse is being held at the funeral home, as compensation negotiations between his family and the company have come to a deadlock.

After two rounds of negotiations, Dongguan Jinchuan Electronics agreed to pay 100,000 yuan ($16,300) as "comfort money for the bereaved family", aside from the compensation that will be decided on by the arbitration authorities.

Chen said Zong's family will not accept compensation less than 1.2 million yuan.

The Asia Pacific region has the largest number of child laborers in the world — 113 million out of the global total of 215 million, according to the 2010 Global Report on Child Labour released by the International Labour Organization.

While official data from China is not available, analysis of data from other countries in the region indicates child labor is most prevalent in agriculture, followed by services and manufacturing, according to Simrin Singh, senior specialist on Child Labour from the Decent Work Team for East and South-East Asia and the Pacific under the ILO.

ILO has been working with the Chinese government to provide direct services to vulnerable children through integrating a life-skills education curriculum in schools, equipping students with the basic skills necessary to migrate safely, avoid risks, and find a decent job.

Sound labor policies, legal protection for young workers and strong enforcement, plus a quality educational system up to the minimum age of employment would help prevent child labor, Singh said in an e-mail.

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