“God help us if the labor-management relations being developed in China become the new low standard for the rest of the world.” — Charles Kernaghan, Director of the NLC
“Almost all the workers who have tried to organize… have been arrested.” — Elisabeth Tang, Chief Executive of the HKCTU
On February 5, 2009, Charles Kernaghan and the National Labor Committee (NLC), a Pittsburgh-based human rights group which campaigns for workers across the globe, released a 60-page report, High Tech Misery in China, documenting the grueling hours, low wages and draconian disciplinary measures at the Meitai factory in southern China.
The 2,000 workers — mostly young women — produce keyboards and other equipment for Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Lenovo, Microsoft and IBM. Along with worker interviews, photographs of primitive factory and dorm conditions and extensive internal company documents were smuggled out of the factory.
Workers sit on hard wooden stools as 500 computer keyboards an hour move down the assembly line, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with just two days off a month.
The workers have 1.1 seconds to snap on each key, an operation repeated 3,250 times an hour, 35,750 a day, 250,250 a week and over one million times a month. The pace is relentless. Workers are paid 1/50th of a cent for each operation they complete.
Workers cannot talk, listen to music or even lift their heads to look around. They must “periodically trim their nails,” or be fined.
Workers needing to use the bathroom must learn to hold it until there is a break. Security guards spy on the workers, who are prohibited from putting their hands in their pockets and are searched when they leave the factory.
All overtime is mandatory and workers are at the factory up to 87 hours a week, while earning a take-home wage of just 41 cents an hour. Workers are being cheated of up to 19 percent of the wages due them.
Ten to twelve workers share each overcrowded dorm room, sleeping on metal bunk beds and draping old sheets over their cubicles for privacy. Workers bathe using small plastic buckets and must walk down several flights of stairs to fetch hot water. Workers are locked in the factory compound four days a week and prohibited from even taking a walk.
For breakfast the workers receive a thin rice gruel. On Fridays they receive a small chicken leg and foot to symbolize “their improving life.” Workers are instructed to “love the company like your home”…”continuously striving for perfection” …and to spy on and “actively monitor each other.”
One Metai worker summed up the general feeling in the factory: “I feel like I am serving a prison sentence… The factory is forever pressing down on our heads and will not tolerate even the tiniest mistake. When working, we work continuously. When we eat, we have to eat with lightning speed… The security guards are like policemen watching over prisoners. We’re really livestock and shouldn’t be called workers.”
Charles Kernaghan, director of the NLC commented, “God help us if the labor-management relations being developed in China become the new low standard for the rest of the world. The $200 personal computer and $22.99 keyboard may seem like a great bargain. But they come at a terrible cost. The low wages and lack of worker rights protections in China are leading the race to the bottom in the global sweatshop economy, where there are no winners.”
Photos of female workers, their heads resting in their arms while on what passes for their “break”, were smuggled out of the KYE Systems factory at Dongguan, China, in April, 2010, as part of a three-year investigation by the National Labour Committee.
According to the report, KYE, who manufactures products for Microsoft, recruits hundreds of “work-study” students 16 and 17 years of age, who work 15-hour shifts, six and seven days a week, making webcams and accessories.
“Like Something Out of a Horror Movie”
A passing tourist, who stopped at the Jiaersi Green Construction Material Chemical Factory, located in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang to ask for some water to drink, was Shanghied and enslaved for over 2 years. Forced to toil every day with a tin bowl of noodles and a beating his only compensation, he twice tried to escape, only to be captured, returned, and flogged mercilessly for his efforts.
According to Chinese state media and Global Times reports from mid-December, 2010, at least 11 workers, including eight intellectually disabled people, were sold to the same building materials factory to work without pay.
The state media reports also cited authorities as saying that the workers were given no protective gear and were given the same food as the factory manager’s dogs. and that they had been confined to the factory, living in the most deplorable conditions imaginable and toiling like galley slaves, for at least three years.
China has had many previous cases of mentally ill people being abused as laborers. For instance, in May 2009, police in the eastern province of Anhui arrested 10 men for enslaving more than 30 mentally handicapped people who were forced to work at brick kilns. Hundreds of brick kiln slaves, many of them handicapped, were freed in raids in 2007 in northern China.
The 2007 Chinese Slave Scandal
The 2007 Chinese slave scandal, also known as the “Shanxi Black Brick Kiln Incident”, was a series of forced labor cases in Shanxi, China. Thousands of Chinese people including children had been forced to work as slaves in illegal brickyards (kilns), and tortured by the owners of the brickyards. In June 2007 alone, approximately 550 people were rescued from such situations.
Shanxi is located in the Loess Plateau in northern China, which is known for its rich clay deposits which are easier and cheaper to mine than coal. Through corrupt relationships with officials, slave “bosses” opened illegal brickyards. Due to the scarcity of labor in Shanxi, some factories outsourced production to middlemen who recruited workers from other provinces, making huge profits for the bosses.
The existence of illegal brickyards was first reported to authorities in 1998 by a laborer who had escaped from one. The escapee also wrote to the chairman of the Shanxi People’s Congress. As a result, slave rescue operations were carried out by provincial government authorities without notifying local officials. Over 150 slaves, three of them child laborers, were freed from the illegal brickyards as a result.
There have been continuing reports of cruelty committed at these illegal brickyards. In May of 2007, Henan TV Metro Channel reported the case of five minors around sixteen years old who had disappeared from the environs of Zhengzhou Railway Station. Having heard of earlier instances of child laborers being kidnapped for brickyards in Shanxi, their parents suspected their children might be found there.
Two months later these five were among fifty minors from Henan who were found at an illegal brickyard. Human traffickers had sold them to the brickyards for 500 Yuan each. The slaves included children as young as eight years old.
Moreover, brickyard owners hired guards and wolfdogs to watch their slaves. These slaves were forced to work over sixteen hours every day and any mistakes were punished by brutal torture. One teenager who was rescued from an illegal brickyard said that, during his slavery, he had been taken to another brickyard by his boss to watch another slave being fed to a meat grinder.
Sweatshop Hall of Shame 2010
The Sweatshop Hall of Shame 2010 highlights apparel and textile companies that use sweatshops in their global production. Hall of Shame inductees are responsible for evading fair labor standards and often are slow to respond or provide no response at all to any attempts by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), workers, or others to improve working conditions.
I wasn’t able to find any results for 2015 — or for anything beyond 2010 for that matter, which has me wondering, but what can you do.
So… The official inductees of the 2010 Sweatshop Hall of Shame are:
Abercrombie and Fitch
Pier 1 Imports
This list also includes an Honorable Mention to the American Apparel and Footwear Association, a national trade association representing apparel and footwear companies. This association has exhibited a flagrant disregard for workers’ rights by primarily focusing on maintaining trade with Honduras in the middle of a military coup.
Most of the companies listed employ laborers who toil for long hours under dangerous working conditions for poverty wages. When these workers attempt to form a union to voice their collective concerns, they face threats from management and risk being fired, beaten… or even worse.
Many of 2010’s inductees used suppliers that practiced illegal tactics to suppress workers’ rights to organize. Some of the companies mentioned weave shame into their clothing by continuing to use cotton sourced from Uzbekistan where harvesting is accomplished through forced child labor.