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Child labour a scourge on education system

Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 10 March 2001

An explosion that killed 47 has highlighted chronic underfunding of schools, writes Herald Correspondent John Schauble in Beijing.

Sausage sizzles and fetes are a far cry from the methods used to raise funds in rural schools across China. Here schoolchildren are set to work.

In Fanglin village of south-eastern Jiangxi province at least 47 children and staff were killed on Tuesday when their school was ripped apart by an explosion. Most of the dead children were aged between eight and nine. Dozens were injured.

Many of the schools that serve China's 130 million primary school students are so poor that there is not enough money to keep them going, let alone pay teachers' salaries. So the schools must raise their own money.

The pupils put to work to raise money are used mainly in light manufacturing, making items such as small cardboard boxes or doing work for garment-makers.

In Fanglin they made fireworks.

State television showed graphic footage of the aftermath of the explosion, in which a whole section of the two-storey school was ripped out.

Locals gave heart-wrenching accounts of scrabbling through the rubble with their hands looking for their children.

Locals have dismissed as nonsense claims that a suicide bomber was responsible for the explosion. Investigators said the bomber had blown himself up, knowing fireworks were stored in the school.

The man's body and a suicide note were found at the scene, police said.

The same explanation was offered by China's Premier, Mr Zhu Rongji, who said a madman was to blame.

Emergency workers and locals say the children were busy inserting fuses and detonators into fireworks when the blast occurred.

Whatever caused the blast, there is do doubt that in Fanglin the village children were being used to make explosives.

The school had a contract with a local factory to assemble fireworks, according to state-run media. Families in the village said their complaints about children being forced to make fireworks at school were ignored by local authorities for the past three years.

There's no law, said Zhang Minggen, whose 11-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son were killed in the blast.

My son told me his teacher forced him to kneel on the ground to punish him when he refused to make firecrackers, he told a news agency.

I went to complain to the township government. They said they would look into it but they did not put a stop to it.

The explosion has highlighted not just the problem of child labour in a dangerous industry, but also the parlous state of China's education system.

The United Nations Children's Fund expressed outrage at the tragedy, and called on the Chinese Government to enforce laws to end child labour.

This is a very common situation, said an independent Chinese trade unionist, Mr Han Dongfan. School-based work had as much to do with a woefully underfunded education system as with child exploitation, he said.

The township schools don't get enough money from the government, so they have to contract with the local factories, said Mr Han, who is now based in Hong Kong, where he edits the China Labour Bulletin.

You can never be sure how many months it is since schoolteachers have got their salaries.

However, Mr Han did not blame teachers for exploiting the children.

I don't think the teachers are bad.

Instead, it was a matter of simply keeping schools open. The phenomenon could be found across China, he said.

The work given to children is always simple. Usually it is done after school or at the weekends, but sometimes in lunchtimes, and even class time is used. Schools have even been encouraged by government to run campus businesses by the granting of tax exemptions that encourage local businesses to use schools as labour pools.

Fanglin is in Wanzai county, renowned as a centre of fireworks manufacturing; about 300 fireworks factories operate there, making the industry a key employer.

Last year two explosions at fireworks factories in the county killed more than 60 people.

A recent report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) highlighted the dangers to children involved in making matches and fireworks.

The risk of fire and explosion is present all the time, it said.

Children as young as three years are reported to be involved and exposed to dust, fumes and airborne concentrations of hazardous substances such as asbestos and potassium chlorate.

While China has ratified international treaties banning child labour, the ILO has estimated that, in a country where the minimum age for employment is 16, there are almost 10 million children aged 10 to 14 at work.