Liveblogging The Senate Commerce Committee Hearing On Toys, Children's Products, And The Chinese Sweatshops In Which They're Made

Starting today at 9:30 a.m., the Senate Commerce Committee will examine the lives of the young Chinese workers who assemble our Barbies and Tiggers without the workforce protections or social safety nets enjoyed by western workers.

Today’s hearing will feature just one panel. Labor activists from the National Labor Committee and the International Labor Rights Forum will appear beside a past president of the Toy Industry Association – formerly called the Toy Manufacturers Association, before the widespread use of Chinese sweatshops.

Storytime kicks off at 9:30 a.m., complete with heart-wrenching testimonials, pictures of sweatshops, and maybe even a surprise appearance from Senator Stevens. Cookies and apple juice, optional.
(AP Photo/Lee Celano)

09:30: The Committee has provided 20 kpbs of video link goodness.
09:40: Subcommittee Chairman Dorgan will be leading the hearing; we always enjoy the when Chairman takes the reigns and doesn’t punt to a junior Senator.
09:41: 80% of our toys are manufactured in China.

09:42: Dorgan has introduced S. 367, the Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act.

09:43: The Senator wants a conversation about whether we want to be the sort of country that accepts products made in sweatshops.

09:44: We know sweatshops exist, but the Senate wants to know if they are proliferating, expanding – or if moral concerns are constraining their use.

09:45: For a quick primer on the issue, the Salt Lake Tribune has an excellent article:

The Chinese Ministry of Health in 2005 noted at least 200 million of China’s labor force of 700 million workers were routinely exposed to toxic chemicals and life-threatening diseases in factories. “More than 16 million enterprises in China have been subjecting workers to high, poisonous levels of toxic chemicals,” the ministry said at a conference on occupational diseases in Beijing, which was reported by the state-controlled media. The ministry particularly blamed “foreign-funded” enterprises that exported goods.

China has more deaths per capita from work-related illnesses each year than any other country, according to the ILO. In 2005, the most recent year for which data are available, 386,645 Chinese workers died of occupational illnesses, according to Chinese government data compiled by the ILO and cited in the July 14, 2006, Journal of Epidemiology. Millions more live with fatal diseases caused by factory work, other epidemiologists estimated in the article.

09:46: Straight to the witnesses. First, Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee.

09:47: Kernaghan claims that the average workweek is 87 hours, from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

09:48: Workers are required to stand as they are yelled at by supervisors, and if anyone speaks back they are immediately fired.

09:48: The standard salary is $0.53 per hour – overtime pay is regularly confiscated.

09:50: He’s holding up a Barbie, claiming: “It doesn’t have to be this way.”Barbie.jpg

09:51: All of these conditions violate Chinese law, but local officials refuse to provide enforcement.

09:52: Some factories don’t even bother hiring “permanent” workers, instead opting for a revolving door of temporary workers.

09:53: The toy industry claims that it needs no regulation – if the Chinese laws aren’t being followed, then Kernaghan believes U.S. law, such as the one Senator Dorgan can force change.

09:54: Onto Harry Wu of the Laogai Research Foundation. The Laogai is the vast labor reform system that forces political prisoners and criminals to repent through hard labor.

09:56: China has claimed that they use a prison system just like we do, not the Laogai. The Laogai is one of the human rights concerns that Congress wanted addressed before granting China MFN (Most Favored Nation) trading status.

09:58: Many labor camps no longer work in agriculture, but manufacturing – toys, gadgets, clothes – everything.

09:59: Wu is holding up the Salt Lake Tribune article we linked to earlier.

10:00: China has one union that nobody accepts as legitimate – except Walmart, which refuses to acknowledge unions here.

10:02: Onto Bama Anthreya of the International Labor Rights Forum.

10:03: Few Chinese workers wear any sort of protective garb. There are 8,000 factories employing 3 million workers.

10:03: Mattel, Hasbro, Fischer-Price and Disney all use sweatshops, but the biggest beneficiary is Walmart.

10:04: If a worker is harmed during working hours, that’s his/her problem, even after a supervisor verifies that the problem was the factory’s fault.

10:05: A worker is required to work for 12 hours – but they really work for 17 hours – and if a worker misses a single shift, that’s it, fired. So if a worker is maimed on the job and seeks medical attention, their job is gone, and they also waive any right to litigation.

10:06: When Lee Dur shut down because of Mattel’s lead paint issues, all workers were laid off. Not a single one knew a thing about lead poisoning, or that they might have been exposed to lead. Quick, send a team of lawyers over there to advertise on their subways.

10:08: All of the companies manufacturing in China have excellent data on the Chinese labor markets. They know all about unemployment, but more importantly, they know exactly how many Chinese inspectors there are. They chose China as a destination not just because it’s cheap – but specifically because there is an absence of enforcement and worker protections. That’s pretty damn harsh – she’s essentially calling Walmart and Mattel heartless killers.

10:11: Legal protection is urgently needed, not just from the Chinese, but from the U.S. – voluntary protections are routinely ignored.

10:11: Senator Sanders (I-VT) is here, ready to throw some socialist fire. But only after Peter Eio of the Toy Industry speaks.

10:12: Mattel was invited, but for some reason, chose not to attend. Maybe all the Barbies were having a tea party.

10:13: Eio has this wonderful English/Scottish accent, and nine chins.

10:14: He’s talking up some industry association we’ve never heard of that vouches for the safety of toy manufacturing around the world.

10:14: Apparently, it was founded by important people – a Prime Minister, a Chamber of Commerce rep, which confers credibility on the organization.

10:15: 670 of the 8,000 factories are certified as not sweatshop death-traps. 290 toy brands representing 75% of global toy products that will require certification by 2009. Walmart, Target, Sears, K-Mart, etc, are apparently part of this group.

10:17: This sounds like a lot of talk, many meetings, but little action.

10:18: Balsy one, this Eio – he wants Congress to fund his certification effort.

10:19: Question time. Mr. Wu believes that American toys are made in Chinese prisons, an assertion backed, apparently, by evidence.

10:20: Dorgan is asking the panelists how they know their information is accurate.

10:21: Wow, Chinese prisoners are affixing labels that read “Made in America.”

10:22: Kernaghan says documents are continually smuggled out of factories, but can’t openly disclose sources because they’ll be dismissed/shot/assigned to make Made in America toys in Chinese prisons.

10:23: Most U.S. companies have no knowledge of the manufacturing conditions in China. Mattel admitted during the toy recalls that they had no clue where many of their toys were made because contracts were recursively farmed out.

10:25: Subcontractors teach workers on their first day how to lie to Mattel auditors – but even Mattel’s own audits show that some factories have an 80 hour workweek, mold on walls, etc.

10:26: Kernaghan is harping on Mattel’s apology to China. Mattel was given waivers by the government in 2005 to pay workers less than legally required for overtime.

10:27: Bama Anthreya has personally toured these factories in South China to see for herself how inspections and audits are conducted.

10:29: Dorgan is asking Eio if the horror stories from the other panelists is possible, especially since his group covers only a fraction of Chinese factories.

10:30: The short answer: Yes, the testimony is accurate.

10:31: Dorgan sees three issues: 1) American workers have lost their jobs; 2) The products made are unsafe for American consumers; 3) We should not accept products made with forced or sweatshop labor.

10:32: Sanders (I-VT) is railing against “unfettered free trade agreements foisted upon us by multinationals.”

10:33: “What you are telling us is that the time is long overdue for this Congress to reconsider these unfettered free trade agreements.” “I want to thank you for doing that.” We like free trade and all, but that’s not what they said, Senator.

10:34: Particularly egregious, that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce went to a foreign government to lobby against worker rights. Dorgan points out that the same thing happened in the Philippines.

10:38: Dorgan has a story about the workers who made Huffy bicycles. When their jobs were shipped to China, workers, leaving after their last day, left their empty shoes in the parking lot. The message: you can export our job, but you can never fill our shoes.

10:41: Walmart buyers roam China like a pack of wolves. They go to factories saying ‘you gave us a product for $.09 last year, we want it for $.07 this year.’ One factory owner quipped that he’d have to stop paying himself to meet their price demands.

10:44: Dorgan is asking Eio to explain rumors that auditors are regularly deceived, making any certification worthless.

10:46: Eio also encounters people who have two sets of books, lying workers, etc, but he has trained auditors who know what to look for. Right, that’ll work.

10:50: Mr. Wu was a political prisoner for 19 years, and was forced to work in a coal mine for 12 hours each day. Every month people would lose limbs, “it was quite normal.”

10:54: Mr. Wu believes that change will happen when we Americans care about the working conditions in which their products are made.

10:55: These issues can apply to any number of countries – the hearing is focusing on China because that’s who hosts the majority of jobs – and this will be part of Congress’ future consideration of trade agreements.

10:57: Kernaghan is saying that there really isn’t much improvement in working conditions anywhere. No progress at all – in some cases, people are significantly worse off. “The American people would be shocked.”

10:58: According to Dorgan, there are many trade disagreements within the Congress, but everyone agrees that sweatshop labor is unacceptable.

10:59: Trade Promotion Authority has expired, and the Senate will block fast track authority in the future – at least until there’s a new President.

11:00: Dorgan is going to push S. 367 soon – and we’ll provide coverage when he does.

11:02: The hearing is adjourned.

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