Would you choose 53c per hour?

October 31, 2007

When the Mattel- lead paint scandal hit the headlines back in August I have to confess I was less concerned about any trace amounts of lead my daughter may have ingested than I was about the probably much larger amount than the Mattel workers faced. Turns out that may be the least of thier worries. As Julie has posted on her blog onehandclapping, the National Labour Committee (NLC) has just released a report revealing the extent of abuse and rights violations workers in Mattels Chinese factories face:

The horrific conditions at these factories are detailed in these reports. Basically young women making Barbie Mattel toys for Walmart are paid just 53 cents an hour and $21.34 a week. “Forced to work excessive overtime, the toy workers are routinely at the factory 82 to 87 hours a week, while toiling 66 to 70 hours. The standard shift is 14 ½ hours a day, from 7:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., six days a week. Mandatory overtime at the Xin Yi Factory exceeds China’s legal limit by 260 percent!

Mattel also received waivers to unilaterally extend allowable working hours to seventy-two hours per week, which exceeds China’s legal limit on overtime by 295 percent.” Oh and this is also the Mattel whose CEO paid himself $7,278,178 last year in wages and other compensation—which is 6,533 times what he pays his toy workers in China.

I guess my little girl won’t be getting Mattel toys for Christmas.

Interestingly, over the past week or so I have also been following a discussion of labour practises and the NLC on an internet forum I belong to. Another report from the NLC has condemned Alcoa’s auto parts sweatshops in Honduras, with allegations of starvation wages, human rights violations (including denial of permission to use bathrooms), forced overtime and union busting. While most forum members were justifiably horrified, others tried to defend the factories and maquila system. The basis of the defense seemed to be that the workers had the power to choose where they worked. This to me shows at the very least a huge misunderstanding of the situation of impoverished peoples in developing nations. And I wonder if that is really at the root of the problem. Living in a place where we have the ability to choose our workplace, and to leave if we need to, it is very difficult for westerners to understand the position of those who have to accept 53c an hour without bathroom breaks. And of course it is much easier on our consciences not to to have to think the products we buy are made by people who do not have a choice. To believe the world we live in is the norm allows us to remain ignorant of the reality of the impact our culture of consumption has on the rest of the world, and to be able to continue to enjoy the benefits of that culture.

Added: After I finished this post I went to my feed-reader, and almost immediately found a post about child labour in Gap factories. The report states that “the Gap clothing chain has withdrawn a line of embroidered blouses and ordered an internal investigation after a news report alleged that the garments were stitched by children in a Delhi sweatshop”.  I wish more people in the West would pay attention.

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