Monday, November 05, 2007

Sweatshop Abuses in China

We're all concerned about the safety of toys coming from China, but there's a flip side to this story we don't hear much about...the conditions for workers making the toys. Charles Kernaghan, Director of the National Labor Committee, recently testified before the U.S. Senate about the sweatshop abuses in China.
Many parents in America would be shocked and disturbed if they knew of the abusive sweatshop conditions under which their children’s toys are being made in China. Parents, however, have no way of knowing, as Mattel—the largest in the world—hides its 40 or so contract plants in China just as the other toy companies do, refusing to provide the American people with even the names and addresses of their plants.

Mattel’s Barbie toys, along with Thomas & Friends toys for the RC2 Corporation and Wal-Mart are made at the large Xin Yi factory in Shenzhen. The 5,000 workers there are stripped of their rights, forced to sign mostly-blank temporary contracts lasting anywhere from just 10 days to a maximum of three months. At management’s discretion, “new” temporary contracts can be renewed every two to three months. Workers can be employed full time for a year or more, but always remain temporary workers with no legal rights. Temporary workers can easily be fired for being “inattentive” at work, or for “speaking during working hours.” Temporary workers have no right to participate in the mandatory national Social Security program which provides health care, no right to paid holidays, vacation, sick days, maternity leave, or severance pay.

The routine shift is 14 ½ hours a day, from 7:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., six days a week. Workers are typically at the factory 87 hours a week, while toiling 70 hours, including 30 hours of forced overtime, which exceeds China’s legal limit by 260 percent! [...]

The factory is excessively hot and everyone is drenched in their own sweat. Workers are prohibited from standing up during working hours, and cannot leave their hard wooden benches, which do not have back rests. The workers say that after several hours, their legs become numb. [...]

The base wage in Shenzhen is just 53 cents an hour, $4.27 a day, and $21.34 a week. Despite being forced to work a 70-hour week, workers report being routinely cheated of nearly 20 percent ($8.31) in overtime wages legally due them each week. This is the equivalent of being cheated out of two day’s wages each week. For working 70 hours, the workers earn just $39.79 while they should have been paid $48.60. [...]

Workers are housed in primitive dorms, 12 people crowded into each room, sleeping on double-level metal bunk beds and fed company food the workers describe as “awful.” Every morning workers have to cue up to wait their turn to brush their teeth and use the toilet. After deductions for room and board, the workers’ take-home pay drops to just 46 cents an hour. [...]
What's so infuriating to me is the fact that Mattel marks up the toys they sell by more than 230 percent. Where does that profit go? Part of it goes to the CEO of Mattel, who paid himself $7.3 million last year - 6,533 times more than he paid his workers in China. And what about the lead in all those toys? According to Kernaghan, one industry estimate puts the price of thoroughly screening toys at just 10 cents per piece.

Think about those facts as you shop for your children and grandchildren this holiday season. The safety and well-being of our children may be in danger, along with that of the workers who make these toys, but Mattel, the RC2 Corporation and Wal-Mart don't care about human rights and safety. They only care about maximizing profits.

Footnote:
Here's an interesting fact from the National Labor Committee website: "If the American retailers paid only 25 cents more per garment, the total in Bangladesh would be $898 million- more than eight times current US aid."

You might also be interested in my post over at BFM: How Good is American Health Care?

3 comments:

abi said...

It's a little like extraordinary rendition. We farm out worker abuse to other countries so we can pretend our hands are clean.

Larry said...

The corporate elitists cafre nothing of who produces the product, only how they individually will benefit from the exploitation of others.

Kathy said...

Abi, our pretending came back to bite us in the form of lead in our toys. I sometimes think we've gotten what we deserve. Those cheap toys and goods come at a cost, as we're finding out.

Larry, I agree, but we shouldn't let shareholders off the hook either. I think a lot of them are starting to wake up to the abuses they're seeing at the corporate level, but for years it was all about maximizing profits and driving up the share price.