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Child Labour

In 1921, a Commission was appointed to look into the problem of child labour in Hong Kong and to give recommendations for legislation. The Commission collected evidence by meeting factory representatives, making visits to the factories, interviewing the management and the workers and talking to children in the streets.

The Commission reported that children as young as seven to eight were hired as casual labour to carry heavy loads of bricks and other materials up the hills. In the manufacturing, children at the age of eleven to sixteen years old were employed working long hours. Girls were mainly engaged in packing cigarettes and in the knitting factories, whereas boys worked under dangerous conditions in glass factories or at docks cleaning steam boilers. Factory jobs were paid by piece rate and daily rate and children were paid less than adults. Some boys were employed as apprentices at a very low nominal wage plus free food and lodging.

Children were brought to Hong Kong by their relatives from villages in China. Many children worked to provide supplementary income for their families in Hong Kong and in their native village. A Chinese member of the Commission suggested that children should be allowed to work as long as the working conditions were not harmful to their health because their income could be essential for family subsistence.

Based on the recommendation of the Commission, the Industrial Employment of Children Ordinance was enacted in 1922. The Ordinance did not eliminate the practices of employing child labour. Instead it defined the age limit of child labour, resulting that the legal minimum age of workers was 10 years for factories, 12 years for carrying loads and 15 years for dangerous industries. The legal minimum age of labour was raised to 16 in the 1930s.

In 1924, factory inspectorate recorded that about 300 children were employed in 28 factories in Hong Kong and in Kowloon. No western-managed companies were found to have employed children. Knitting factories employed more children than other industries. The factories made use of the quickness and deftness of the children’s fingers to do repetitive light work, such as filling cigarette packets, pasting labels and turning or unpicking cotton socks. When the knitting and tobacco industries faced economic downturns, fewer children were employed. In 1928, the number of child workers was reduced to 100. From 1933 onwards, the government reported that large factories did not employ workers under 16 years old, and in 1937, it reported that there were practically no children under the age of 14 in the registered factories.

But there was no information about children in smaller factories and workshops employing less than 10 people.