Dongguan is a huge industrial city fuelled by approximately 40,000 factories. Handshake Worker's Hotline has built partnership with 54 factories there. F is famous as a top international brand selling electronic devices, many of its suppliers are located in Dongguan. Since brand F has purchased Handshake Worker's Hotline for one of its supplier K, a textile factory, K has become 1/54. Last year, a 15-year-old girl named Chee was found working in the factory K. Inno was invited to provide a remedy action plan for this case.
In the past 15 years, Inno has handled 25 child labor cases within the partner factories. All the cases happened in the apparel industry. However, this case stood out in comparison to the previous 24 cases. Because this was the first time that Inno got rid of it's old rescue methodology which primarily focused on saving lives from danger. An integrated approach was taken in this case involving multi-stakeholder communication,career enhancement and psychological support intervention.
Diversity is important while establishing a child labour task force
In this case, the task force members were mostly grouped within Inno based on the basic information of the clients and the region of factory K. The task force consisted of members having different professional backgrounds such as a humanistic psychological counsellor with an expertise in children counselling, a social worker, a programme lead with a focus on family communication at the workplace, and a coordinator with experience in multi-stakeholder communication. Diverse backgrounds helped the team to communicate smoothly with different stakeholders, and also leverage various perspectives and analyse available information more thoroughly and accurately.
Development perspective as an alternative to rescue perspective
Words like save, rescue and help are frequently used when Child Labour cases are discussed. And that signals a rescue perspective in handling such cases.It focuses on time detachment and it is useful and efficient only when there is an emergency related to people's lives. That's why many governments, organisations or groups are keen to handle child labour cases through rescue perspective, including Inno until 2020. In 2018, one of the minor clients slapped a task force member of Inno and accused them of depriving her of a chance to make money for her dying siblings.After that incident, Inno realised that the rescue perspective to cope with this kind of case is becoming less and less applicable.It implies that the relationship between task force members and clients is unequal with a power imbalance, and also lacks a long-term development angle.Development perspective is an upgrade on rescue perspective.It means to listen carefully and fully understand clients' thoughts and needs focusing on a more lasting picture. For instance, supporting minor clients with personal development and career enhancement training resources, providing psychological support for a resilient attitude.
Avoid single channel attribution analysis
Workforce shortage has been a major problem in China's manufacturing industry lately. Factory K is a typical example in this context. In recent times, factory K has gradually deepened its cooperation. The task force members disguised themselves as students chatted with 20 employment agencies as job seekers in Dongguan. Among them, 16 refused to recruit minors under the age of 16, but 4 still claimed that they could help us get into the factory to work although we said we did not have any identity documents. This clearly indicates that child labour can't be easily attributed to clients, factories, brands and employment agencies,. Insufficient employment auditing systems in factories, incomplete standards in the employment agencies' service, general employment difficulties, poverty, and Imbalanced urban-rural divide have all contributed to the occurrence of child labour. Identifying these key factors as much as possible will promote understanding among all the parties and help them in coming up with a better solution.
Identification and Referral
Factory K has been reported a child labour case during a random factory audition conducted by brand F. According to factory K, auditors noticed a childish face when they were at the QC workshop. At that time, Chee was packaging and labelling laptop bags.She was asked to show her ID card.The auditors found that the photo on it didn't resemble her at all. Therefore, the auditors asked Chee a few questions, but she was too nervous to answer the more detailed questions and began to sob. Immediately, factory K withdrew Chee from her position. However, the function of the factory audit is to identify and report, not to address it. Therefore, brand F contacted Inno because they required a third-party to intervene in this case.
Establish the Task Force
Inno has formed a task force including four members since the request. The lead of the task force took the responsibility of coordinator. Two team members are operators. And the task force also included one psychological counsellor from external organisation.
The ideal remedy plan should be client-centred because the minor client is the most vulnerable within all the stakeholders. The diagram shows the remedy expectation results that the task force force hopes to meet and the actual remedy results of multi-stakeholder communication.
At the early stage, stakeholders include clients, factory K and brand F, and Inno's task force is the bridge of the tripartite connection. The task force learned from Chee and Lam that after being reported in the factory audition, she was immediately evacuated from the position and returned to the rental room. No any physical examination was done during this period. However, the client's physical function is not yet mature, and compared with adults, she is more likely to be harmed by noise, irritating odours, corrosive solutions and other harmful materials at work. In order to find out whether the client has caused any physical damage during the nine-day work in factory K, a work-related injury body check-up is necessary.
With Chee's consent, the task force immediately urged factory K and brand F to arrange a physical examination for Chee in a qualified hospital, accompanied by her guardian, Lam. In view of the previous information, the client had stress reaction that she once stood on the rooftop of the dorm and claimed she would jump. Therefore, the task force strongly suggested that psychological support to the client is urgent and necessary. After multiple times of communication, brand F purchased a face-to-face psychological support service for the client with the purpose of assessment. From then on, the counsellor joined the communication and gave many recommendation from her perspective.
In terms of financial compensation, the task force referred to the 24 cases of child labour in the past, and recommended that factories and brands could go beyond compliance and pay a living deposit until the client reached 18. In addition to the health and economic status remedy, career development was also a topic pointed out by the task force during the communication. See Tailored Intervention for more details.
1st site investigation
Met the contact person from factory K, Lam and chee separately.
Build professional relationship with the involved persons.
Crosscheck the information collected from the calls before.
Learn about her feelings, experiences and expectations.
Initial assessment of her status.
2nd site investigation
Arranged psychological status appraisal via counselling for Chee.
Build professional relationship with the clients(Chee and Lam).
Know more about the pressure, burden and expectation of Chee.
3rd site investigation
Chee told the team she had a fever and felt bad, so the team went to Dongguan to visit her.
Solidifying professional relationship with the clients(Chee and Lam).
4th site investigation
The team knew more about Chee's expectation on her own career paths. Then discussed together about her ideal lifestyle and career planning.
Solidifying professional relationship with the clients(Chee and Lam).
Resources linking based on takeaways of the psychological assessment report and the collected information of her planning career.
Work-related injury body check-up
Chee had worked in the position for 9 days. But she had not undergone any type of health appraisal. Referring to the COC from the brand, other counterpart brands and Responsible Buisness Alliance(RBA), the examinations are compulsory. To find out whether Chee's physical condition had impaired due to the 9 days of work, Inno urged brand F and factory K to confirm the occupational safety and health examinations were conducted. Fortunately, all the physical indicators were all good.
According to the internationally accepted standard and the local regulations, factory K should provide living allowances to Chee with an amount not lower than the monthly minimum wage in Dongguan. Referring to the past cases, Inno recommended factory K and brand F kept following up till Chee reaches 18. At last, Chee gained her compensation with the amount of CNY 18,900 (CNY 2,100 per month × 9 months) offered by factory K.
Psychological resources connecting and support
Chee thought her brother suffered from depression, so she bought a lot of books related to psychology and counselling, expecting she could make some changes in this situation. The team understood this situation and asked Chee whether she needed a counsellor for herself due to this great pressure. Chee said yes and then it was brand F's turn to make the decision. In the past, when brands and factories address child labour cases, mental health was rarely included in the plan. Therefore, Therefore, in the beginning, brand F thought psychological support was completely unnecessary and to provide this was beyond their duty while addressing this case. Factory K also believed that offering legal and compliant financial compensation and additional training subsidies had fulfilled its responsibilities. The team explained the importance and necessity of psychological support repeatedly, and finally brand F agreed to pay for the first psychological support with the evaluation function.
Career enhancement support
Urged factory K and brand F provide access of vocational education and training opportunity to Chee referring to the international standard for child labour relief. In order to work in the packaging and labelling position in factory K, Chee gave up the days that ought to be spent on study. Therefore, factory K should be responsible for the continuing education cost and the following support. Inno provided vocational soft skills-related training courses and resources based on ProF, a female empowerment programme.
Lasting follow ups that beyond the case
Except for the actions focus on this case it self, Inno also suggest factory K and brand F can do more to prevent more cases happen in the future.
Raise the awareness of the significance of the non-judicial grievance mechanism. In factory K, the mechanism equals to Handshake Worker's Hotline. Still, the promotion of the hotline is limited. If the knowledge of the hotline can be expand to the whole factory, that would be of great help to identify similar issues and immediately conduct appropriate interventions.
Strengthen the verification of identity information during the on-boarding procedure. Factory K was inspired by the communication and promised they would try to contact the local police station for establish a more flexible identity verification mechanism.
Strict with the audition when cooperate with the employment agency. Factory K has terminate the contract with the agency involved after the case was reported.
Building relationship and connection
To build a relationship is to build trust. Different from the standpoint of factories and brands, Inno plays a role as an independent third party, as always. This role has brought both advantages and disadvantages when members in task force tried to build relationship with all the counterparts. The bright side was that Clients, factory K and brand F have been more open to the team. For the clients, Chee and Lam even made it 4 face to face encounters with the task force team members. But this was very challenging especially the Pandemic was prevailing at that time. Except the face to face interaction, the team has kept in touch with them on WeChat, a popular social media platform in China. Frequent online communication with them was also a tricky task for setting and maintaining the professional boundaries.
Considering national contexts while referring to the international standard for child labour relief
The international standards such as C138&182 from ILO and SA8000 are important references for child labour relief. But going back to specific scenarios and regions, there are still limitations. For example, the standards mentioned that minors should be arranged to go back to school for education. While planning the actions, government should be noticed. But is returning to school really the best option for all of them? How long will it take to implement the action plan with government's intervention? In this case, Chee was reluctant to go back to school for education, and the local social worker dedicating on child labor relief told the task force members that if the government intervened, the Women's Federation would probably ask Chee go back to the place of household registration. That meant that Chee would be separated from her mother. Even if Chee returns to her hometown, she said that she would come back to Dongguan to reunite with her mother after the government intervention was over. Therefore, when universal international standards were applied to a specific situation, it is necessary to consider the specific situation, which is undoubtedly a big challenge throughout the whole action.
Counselling is still unfamiliar to the majority of individuals
Counseling is still a relatively strange thing in China, the accessibility is still relatively low to the public, and the price is not affordable for many individuals. Usually, the effect of once or twice counselling is limited. Consistent counselling means time and money consuming. So it made sense that brand F and factory K had many concerns on the counselling arrangement in the remedy plan especially almost no similar cases in domestic child labour cases. Emphasizing the necessity and importance of providing counseling to the client and eliminating the concerns of brands and factories was a very big challenge for the task force.
Poverty is difficult to eliminate
Child labour is actually a structural issue. Chee decided to work in K factory was not because she liked work but because she had to work to earn money to support her family. Meanwhile, working in factories was a relatively secure and stable way to make money. She would like to run a milk tea shop in the future, but the reality was that it would took a long long time for her to save enough initial funds, which is almost impossible for a poor family. On the contrary, to feed her family members seems more possible and more important than realizing her own dream. For her, it took money for her father to recover, her brother to purchase medicine, and her sister and brother to go to school. How could she went to school with ease and let her mother suffered from all these alone? Unfortunately, in China, neither other institutions and NGOs nor Inno can solve such a structural problem in the short term, so we need to cut in from the perspective of career planning.
Brands can end child labor throughout the entire responsible business behavior and operation process, including suppliers' selection, social audits, etc., and then strengthen cooperation with civil society organisations on various issues.
Factories can keep an eye out for identifying where Child Labour risks may occur from the recruitment process, present labor regulations, and daily management. We have seen many factories have temporarily employed child labour due to various practical factors such as soaring orders and periodic employment needs. Also, we have also seen the factories do their best to eliminate child labor through setting strict regulations to insepect ID documentations. However, understanding all these is not the last mile, on the contrary, the first step to take action.
Individuals can also keep paying attention to the Child Labor issue. Not only focus on the harm and cost of child labour employment, but also try to understand the life stories and complexity behind each minor that forced into work like Chee.
We don't mean to blame brands, factories, employment agency and those individuals who have to work for a barely enough money though they do not reach the legal age of employment.
We are here to invite you to keep focusing on the Child Labour issues, try to tear the stereotype label attached and try to ponder the crux, stories and complexity hidden behind this. So that we can be one of the solid brick within the social protection floors*.
*The 2022 theme of the world day against Child Labour calls for increased investment in social protection systems and schemes to establish solid social protection floors and protect children from child labour.