HONG KONG—Members of a Chinese minority group sent to work in a shoe factory thousands of miles from home include children, with some parents allegedly coerced into letting them go, workers at the factory have said.
The workers, from China’s largely Muslim Uyghur ethnic group, are employed at Longfa Shoe Factory in China’s southeastern Guangdong province.
The facility currently employs 660 workers through a program known as “Transfer Surplus Workforce Outwards.” More than half of the workers are female, and some 300 are under the age of 18, employees say.
Longfa Shoe Factory is owned by Taiwan-based Dean Shoes Co. Ltd., which supplies Oregon-based U.S. footwear giant Nike, Inc.
While the legal working age in China is 16, Nike’s code of conduct states that its contractors do not “employ any person below the age of 18 to produce footwear.”
Spokesmen for Nike and for Longfa Shoe Factory denied the allegation and said hiring underage workers would violate company policies.
But some workers at the factory say they were sent to work at age 15 or 16. They were supplied with fake identification papers showing earlier birthdates, they said.
Sawut and Abide, Uyghurs originally from China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), said that most of the girls were brought to Longfa at age 16 or 17 in three separate groups during March, April, and September of 2008.
“Most of the girls here are 16 or 17. There are many of them like that. You can hardly find girls who are 18—maybe only five or 10 of them,” Sawut said.
“There are more 16-year-old girls here than older ones,” Abide said.
Others working at the factory who asked not to be identified also said they were under the age of 18.
“Today is my 17th birthday. I came here when I was 16, right after junior high,” said one girl.
Another said that she was 16. “I came here April 28 . It has been nine months and 10 days,” the girl said.
‘No workers under 18’
Longfa Shoes Corp.’s headquarters are located in Longxi town, in Bolo county, near Guangdong’s Huizhou city.
An official of Longfa’s human resources department refused to provide his name when contacted by telephone but denied that the company employed underage workers.
“According to our factory’s hiring policy, workers should be 18 or over. We do not hire workers under 18,” the official said.
“We are a shoe factory, and in terms of working conditions it is not suitable for us to hire child workers. In addition, our customers require the same standards of us. Therefore, we do not hire child workers when possible,” he said.
“Nike takes these issues seriously and has a code of conduct that all contract factories must sign and adhere to, including a firm policy on age limits and working conditions,” the company said in a prepared statement.
“Nike has visited the Longfa factory in Huizhou, China, and after reviewing monitoring, audits, and interviews with Xinjiang workers we did not find evidence…that Longfa has employed workers under Nike’s minimum code of conduct age of 18 for footwear contract factories,” the statement said.
Kate Meyers, a spokeswoman for Nike Inc., said the company sent staff to investigate the claims about breaches of Nike’s code of conduct.
Meyers said interviews were conducted with approximately 50 workers at the factory from Xinjiang who are bilingual and speak fluent Mandarin, making the use of translators unnecessary.
“While monitoring and audits are not the only way to detect issues, they do give a real time indication of factory conditions,” Nike’s statement said.
Officials at companies connected to the labor transfer program may be unaware that they are hiring child laborers, or that they may be complicit in illegal hiring schemes orchestrated by local authorities in the workers’ hometowns, according to some girls.
Meryem, a Uyghur girl worker at Longfa, said government officials arranged for her to swap identification cards with her older sister.
“They told us that 16-year-olds cannot work, so they changed our names. I came here with my older sister’s name. We didn’t want to come here and would rather have stayed with our parents,” she said.
Meryem’s father, Emet Sawut, also says that the local government swapped his daughters’ identification cards.
“I said, ‘My daughter is only 16 years old. She is not eligible to work.’ But the village party secretary Emetjan Yantaq came to our house and said it was okay to change her identification card with her older sister’s,” he said.
When contacted by telephone, Emetjan Yantaq refused to comment.
Emet Sawut said the local government in Opal town, where his family resides, eventually forced his daughter to swap her identification with the threat of cutting off farming subsidies.
“They pressured me, saying, ‘If you do not give us your daughter, we will cancel your government poverty aid,’” Emet Sawut said.
“My older daughter in Karamay city filled the form out for my younger daughter. Then my younger daughter set off [for Guangdong] on April 20, 2008. It [is] one year this April,” he said.
Pashagül, party secretary of Opal town in the XUAR’s Kashgar prefecture, is responsible for transferring local laborers for the program.
She voiced surprise when questioned as to whether the identification cards of children had been swapped with those of other, older residents to increase the town’s number of viable workers.
“Where did you get this news? These questions make me feel uncomfortable. How do you know we did that and how did you get this news?” she asked.
Pashagül declined to comment further.
The U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China said in its 2008 annual report that the Chinese government continues to fill local jobs in Xinjiang with migrant labor, while maintaining programs that send young ethnic minorities to work in factories in China’s interior under conditions reported to be “abusive.”
“Local officials, following direction from higher levels of government, have used ‘deception, pressure, and threats’ toward young women and their families to gain recruits into the labor transfer program,” it said.
According to a report by Radio Free Asia, by the end of 2007 hundreds of Uyghur girls, most of them underage, had been forced into labor programs far from their homes in Xinjiang by local officials.
The girls were enrolled in training programs at factories and told they would be paid during their training, but they never received wages.
Most girls were unable to afford the cost of a return trip home, and those who did go back faced fines from hometown officials upon their return, the RFA report said.
Uyghurs constitute a distinct, Turkic-speaking, Muslim minority in northwestern China and Central Asia. They declared a short-lived East Turkestan Republic in Xinjiang in the late 1930s and 40s but have remained under Beijing's control since 1949.
Original reporting by Mamatjan Juma for RFA’s Uyghur service. Director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.