HL Deb 19 July 1976 vol 373 cc507-10

2.42 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action is being taken by the Hong Kong Labour Department to combat the increase in child labour, and whether an investigation is being made into the allegation of Triad Society involvement in the recruitment of such labour.


My Lords, the Hong Kong Labour Department is carrying out a progressively increasing number of inspections of factories in order to detect whether there is illegal employment of child labour and to bring offending employers before the courts. Over 120,000 such visits were carried out in 1975, as compared with about 76,000 in 1973. The Royal Hong Kong Police have not received any complaints that organised Triad societies are involved in recruiting child labour.


My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is it not the case that this year there has been a great shortage of labour in Hong Kong and, as a result of that, increasing illegal employment of child labour? Is he aware that the Director of Education states that 68,000 children between 10 and 14 years of age are not at school because their parents cannot afford the school costs? Has he seen the report of the students of the Hong Kong Baptist College, which includes the fact that in the industrial area of Shamshaipo 8 out of 10 factories are now employing child labour? Is he satisfied that 70 inspectors are sufficient to deal with this problem?


My Lords, as to the shortage of labour, as Hong Kong is virtually extricating itself from a very marked economic recession no doubt there is a new call for labour. I would not for a minute say that at this stage it is creating a new problem of child employment. As to the figure of 68,000 children between the ages of 10 and 14 who are not at school, I should like to tell the House that the Hong Kong Government has plans to provide, by September 1978, schooling for all up to the age of 14. It has been demonstrated to me that these plans are realistic and will be pressed forward with all due expediency. The report to which my noble friend refers, if it is the one to which my attention has been drawn, was based on a survey conducted in 10 factories out of a total of 35,500 factories in the Colony. I suggest that a survey based on such a minuscule area is not totally dependable.


My Lords, referring to the second point that the Minister made in his reply, regarding the activity of the Triad organisations, may I ask whether he is aware that children are recruited in Hong Kong by these middlemen and taken to the factories, led by what is known as a "Pied Piper"? Is he aware that for supplying the children these middlemen organisations take commissions from the children's wages? Will he get in touch with the headmaster of the Baptist College in order to secure further facts about this problem?


My Lords, certainly. I based my reply on the information available to me from the Royal Hong Kong Police, who say they have not received any complaints that organised Triad societies are involved in recruiting child labour. Of course I shall look at any evidence to the contrary which my noble friend can put before me, including what he has received from this Baptist College.


My Lords, just to put forward the other side of the story, would the Minister agree that the Hong Kong Government now reports to a Governor of tremendous sensitivity and great belief in the improvements that should be made, and who has in fact made enormous improvements? Instead of shooting at him should we not pay to him and those who report to him a certain respect and regard for what he has been able to do in a short period of years?


My Lords, I warmly agree, especially as this comes from a quarter of authority and experience such as that of the noble Lord. I am sure that Sir Murray MacLehose's record of dedicated service in this very difficult area needs to be commended, and to be commended frequently, especially when it is so easy to condemn the situation in Hong Kong which nevertheless shows tremendous advances in the last three or four years on what was there previously.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, in view of the fact, which I accept, that for several years it is not possible to undertake education, may I ask the noble Lord whether it is not better for these young people to be employed in some form rather than being on the streets?


My Lords, while one does not for a moment take a complacent view of child employment in this or any other country, there is something in what the noble Baroness says. The Chinese family organisation which coincides so often with industrial and productive activity, very often lends itself to a benevolent form of juvenile employment that we, in a country like this, would not find tolerable. I hope that I am not putting this too high, and that what I have said will not be misunderstood. At the same time, the Hong Kong Government, as the noble Lord, Lord George-Brown, reminded us, has ensured that in a number of specified industries there is a ban on the employment of young people below the age of 14, and the figures I have given, and indeed other figures I have provided in Written Answers to my noble friend, show that they are earnestly following up those regulations.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of these children are paid scandalously low wages, which are skimmed off by the middlemen recruiters, and that they are compelled to work more than 12 hours a day for those wretched wages?


My Lords, if they are compelled to work 12 hours a day, then those concerned are in default of very clear regulations and are subject to the inspections which, as I have tried to show, are being very rigorously pursued. As to the level of wages, Hong Kong is not the best or the worst when compared with cognate countries in that area. It is our firm intention, and certainly that of the Governor to whom reference has been made, that the substantial progress that has already been attained shall be pressed forward with redoubled energy in the next few years.