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 here at the 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 here, 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 on 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 here 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 from here. 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.
Many global brands have struggled with labor problems in their Chinese operations. 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.
Apple declined to comment for this article, but the company has said it has taken steps to address labor issues in its supply chain, including deeper audits on its partners and a program that punishes suppliers that hire underage workers.
Now, Samsung — whose smartphones are popular worldwide — is also the target of labor rights activists.
In a report released on Thursday, China Labor Watch, which is based in New York, accused Samsung of allowing a supplier in Dongguan to hire underage workers, cheating those workers on pay, denying them overtime wages and failing to give them government-mandated labor contracts.
“After allegedly inspecting hundreds of Chinese suppliers, Samsung did not find one child worker,” China Labor Watch said in a statement released on Thursday. “Yet in just one Samsung supplier factory, CLW has uncovered several children employed without labor contracts, working 11 hours per day and only being paid for 10 of those hours.”
For the last decade, labor rights groups have tried to draw attention to labor abuse and health and safety violations in some of China’s biggest factories. They often send young activists to work undercover in the workshops, document conditions, secretly interview workers and examine their pay stubs and employment contracts.
In the Samsung case, a young activist at China Labor Watch was hired by the Dongguan factory and began collecting evidence and making friends with workers suspected of being underage. According to the account by the labor rights group, the activist ate with the three young girls, and also with two young boys who were believed to be underage, and secretly recorded their conversations.
The activist also took photographs of conditions inside the Shinyang facility, which is owned and managed by a company in South Korea. The Dongguan factory now works exclusively for Samsung to produce plastic components for mobile phones.
A Shinyang spokeswoman, who gave her name as Fang, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that Samsung audited the company on June 25 and that the auditors found no evidence of workers below age 18, let alone 16.
Samsung says in its own exhaustive audits of hundreds of factories in China during the last two years that third-party auditors found not a single underage worker. But a Samsung spokeswoman says the company is now conducting its own investigation into the Shinyang facility.
According to its annual sustainability report, which includes a review of human rights and labor conditions at its global centers, Samsung says it has “zero tolerance” for child labor and could “suspend transactions” with suppliers that do not comply with its rules.
In its 2014 report, released on June 30, Samsung acknowledged weaknesses in its supply chain. For instance, the report said that a majority of the facilities Samsung had audited in China failed to comply with the country’s law on the maximum hours of overtime workers are permitted, which is 36 hours a month. The company said it was trying to rectify the situation.
If Samsung verifies that at least three young girls were working at its supplier factory, experts say that would cast some doubts on what the company considers stringent audits, including the use of facial recognition software to determine whether the faces of workers matched their government-issued identity cards.
According to the three young girls, they began working at Shinyang on June 30, just five days after the Shinyang factory says it was audited. They said they were hired as “temporary workers,” given fake ID cards and asked to work the most difficult shift, 8:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m., and then to put in an additional three hours of overtime, six days a week.
The work was grueling but tolerable, they said. The girls complained that they were paid about $1.20 an hour because they had been hired by a middleman or “labor dispatch company.” A typical worker, they said, was paid $1.45 an hour. Labor rights activists say this is an increasingly common way factories reduce costs and skirt the labor law.
China Labor Watch said the girls were allowed to avoid the facial recognition system, which is supposed to help prevent underage workers. And when asked how the factory could provide them with false government-issued ID cards, one of the girls said: “The factory can just borrow real identification cards from other factories to register us. And the system for checking employees as they enter the factory is not that strict.”