Report Cites Holiday Abuse in Chinese Factory

Not only should parents be concerned about the made-in-China toys Santa puts under the Christmas tree but, according to a new report by a labor rights group, Scrooge is running at least one of the Chinese factories that makes their holiday ornaments too.

The National Labor Committee, which tracks working conditions in developing countries worldwide, released a report Wednesday titled "A Wal-Mart Christmas Brought to You from a Sweatshop in China."

It documents with photos and video, workers -- some as young as 12 years old -- working at the Guangzhou Huanya Gift Co., which produces ornaments sold in the United States at Wal-Mart and Target stores.

"Wal-Mart is glorifying the virtue of buying cheap goods in its stores, claiming this is the real holiday spirit," said Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee at a press conference outside Rockefeller Center, near the famous Christmas tree.

"But especially at this time of year, no American would knowingly purchase a product in Wal-Mart if they knew that bargain was based on the exploitation of children and teenagers forced to work grueling hours, seven days a week, who are stripped of their rights and paid pennies an hour," Kernaghan said.

Wal-Mart would not comment directly on the report since it was just released today, but a spokesman said the company takes the allegations seriously.

In a written statement, Richard Coyle, Wal-Mart's director of international corporate affairs said, "As soon as Wal-Mart learned about the Christmas tree ornament report, we contacted the National Labor Committee and they have not returned our call. Now that we have a copy of their report, we have launched an immediate investigation. Through our rigorous ethical standards program, Wal-Mart aggressively deals with any allegations of improper conditions at our suppliers' factories. Wal-Mart maintains a very strict supplier's code of conduct, and employs over 200 people to monitor our suppliers and their designated factories' adherence. Our program is the largest of its kind in the world -- last year, we conducted more than 16,000 audits at over 8,700 factories."

Other companies, such as Target, were not singled out in the report as selling ornaments from the factory. However the report said Target was listed among a list of buyers from the factory.

A Target spokesman said the store was still "researching the issue related to the factory in China that was identified in the NLC report, but our initial findings indicate that Target does not have any relationship with this factory."

Long Hours, Loose Labor Laws

Some 8,000 people work in the Chinese factory, working 10- to 12- to 15-hour shifts with breaks only for lunch and dinner, seven days a week during the eight-month busy season, according to the report, which obtained most of its information from videos and documents smuggled out of the factory this summer.

They show that the factory hired 500 or more 16 year-old workers this summer, and some of those teenage workers said the factory employed children as young as 12.

The smuggled video and photos released with the report seem to show startlingly young children hunched over large bags of shiny balls stringing the ornaments together.

Most of the workers are young women as the report details: "A young woman hand paints a Christmas ornament every 39 seconds and 93 an hour.  In the spray paint department, working without gloves or masks, a young man sprays rack after rack of 32 Christmas balls each, completing 64,000 to 76,800 ornaments a day."

Congressional Outrage

Some in Congress are taking action.

"If this were happening down the street in Bismarck, N.D., or Boston or Peoria, Ill., and you had people down at the end of the block hiring 12-year-olds, working seven days a week, 15 hours a day from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m., without a day off for months ... you'd get the country sheriff and run down there and close it," Said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., at a news conference on Capitol Hill.

Dorgan, who called the working conditions "abuse," has sponsored Senate legislation that would ban sweatshop products from store shelves in the United States by holding the companies that import the products accountable to U.S. laws pertaining to their production.

At the press conference, Dorgan displayed one large, sparkly ornament he said was bought at Wal-Mart and came from the factory, as well as a box of smaller, shiny, ball ornaments, whose production was depicted in the video and pictures that accompany the report.

The report alleges workers are at the factory an average of 84 hours per week and working 77 of those hours, and also that half the workers are at the factory 105 hours during the week and working 95.

These 55 hours of overtime work exceed China's legal overtime limit by 562 percent.

And, according to the report, the factory deems taking days off unacceptable, and that any worker who takes a Sunday off is docked 2½ days' wages as punishment.  

"Workers were pressured to sign a 'voluntary' overtime application in which they "AGREE" to work more than three hours overtime a day, to work Saturdays, Sundays and holidays "with no guaranteed minimum wage or overtime premium," read the report.

"I'm just interested in deciding that if we're part of this global economy -- and we are -- it is a global economy -- the question is, what are the rules and how do you enforce the rules?" asked Dorgan, adding that there is finally a "great awakening" in the United States regarding the working conditions behind imported goods.

But he did note that there are obstacles to his anti-sweatshop legislation.

"Anybody who raises any questions is branded as an anti-free trader, as some sort of Neanderthal, xenophobic, isolationist stooge who just can't see over the horizon," Dorgan said.