DONGGUAN, China — After work, the three young women giggle and pull at one another’s hair. But when questioned, they admit their common secret: They use false papers to work illegally at a factory that makes mobile phone components for one of the world’s biggest brands, Samsung.
They are 14 and 15 years old, below the legal working age in China. A few weeks ago, they were living at home with their parents in a small village a six-hour drive from Dongguan, finishing middle school.
“We also worked at a factory last summer,” said one of the young girls, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of getting fired. “But it was much worse. We were making Christmas ornaments, and some workers got huge blisters on their hands.”
The presence of at least three child workers at the factory in southern China casts a cloud over the labor practices of Samsung and its suppliers. A little more than a week ago, Samsung, the South Korean electronics giant, said in an annual review of conditions at its manufacturing centers that it had found no evidence of underage workers or child laborers in its global supply chain.
In recent years, Samsung has promoted its efforts to monitor and evaluate suppliers and manufacturing operations around the world, noting that the policies were aimed at protecting workers and preventing minors from being hired.
For instance, even though the legal working age in China is 16, Samsung considers that too young, and so its suppliers are instructed not to hire workers under 18. To ensure they do not cheat, Samsung says, it has forced all of them to install a sophisticated facial recognition system on factory sites.
But Tuesday morning, the three young girls met with a reporter from The New York Times after they were initially identified by the labor rights group China Labor Watch. Near their factory in Dongguan, they explained how easy it was to work for a company that supplies Samsung.
According to the girls, they were part of a “labor dispatch system” that often funnels child laborers to factories during the summer to help meet a surge in orders that comes just ahead of the fall and winter shopping seasons in the United States and Europe. They were hired as temporary workers, they said, and paid through an agency that has recruitment channels in poor regions.
After they told their story, the three girls locked arms and walked past the security guards and into the Shinyang Electronics factory, which employs more than 600 workers in Dongguan, one of China’s biggest manufacturing centers.
“As part of our pledge against child labor, Samsung routinely conducts inspections to monitor our suppliers to ensure they follow our commitment,” Samsung said in a statement. “We are urgently looking into the latest allegations and will take appropriate measures in accordance with our policies to prevent any cases of child labor in our suppliers.”
The situation at the factory in Dongguan underscores some of the challenges multinational corporations face in sourcing goods. Wages and working conditions in China have steadily improved over the last decade. But ensuring that supplier factories comply with guidelines set by global brands, as well as China’s labor laws, is difficult, even though larger factories are regularly audited by outside inspectors.
In the last few years, Apple has come under scrutiny in China over labor and safety problems, notably a spate of worker suicides and unrest at facilities run by its biggest contract manufacturer, the Taiwanese company Foxconn.