Breaking News: There Are Sweatshops In China!

Economists and politicians rant about China in terms of jobs lost, currency valuation, and trade gaps. But the New York Times reports that a new metric has been discovered: every year, Chinese workers manufacturing our toys, garments and electronic junk in the Peal River Delta collectively break 40,000 fingers.

Underage workers are forced to work overtime in dangerous conditions for little pay, a widespread reality factory owners easily conceal from incompetent inspectors.

A former Huanya employee who was reached by telephone gave a similar account of working conditions, saying many workers suffered from skin rashes after working with gold powders and that others were forced to sign papers “volunteering” to work overtime.

“It’s quite noisy, and you stand up all day, 12 hours, and there’s no air-conditioning,” he said. “We get paid by the piece we make but they never told us how much. Sometimes I got $110, sometimes I got $150 a month.”

In its 58-page report, the National Labor Committee scolded Wal-Mart for not doing more to protect workers. The group charged that last July, Huanya recruited about 500 16-year-old high school students to work seven days a week, often 15 hours a day, during peak production months for holiday merchandise.

Several students interviewed at the Guangzhou Technical School, less than two miles from Huanya, confirmed that classmates ages 16 to 18 had spent the summer working at the factory.

Some high school students later went on strike to protest the harsh conditions, the report said. The students also told labor officials that at least seven children, as young as 12 years old, were working in the factory.

“At Wal-Mart, Christmas ornaments are cheap, and so are the lives of the young workers in China who make them,” the National Labor Committee report said.

Walmart is not alone. Human rights activists also jeer Disney and Dell for shunting underage kids through labor mills.

Who is to blame? Economics. Factory owners will do anything to provide goods at everyday low prices. The reward for their productivity vastly outweighs the risk of a crackdown from China’s notoriously corrupt regulators.

“The factories have improved immeasurably over the past few years,” says Alan Hassenfeld, chairman of the toy maker Hasbro and co-chairman of Care, the ethical-manufacturing program of the International Council of Toy Industries. “But let me be honest: there are some bad factories. We have bribery and corruption occurring but we are doing our best.”

Some factories are warned about audits beforehand and some factory owners or managers bribe auditors. Inexperienced inspectors may also be a problem.

Some major Western auditing firms working in China even hire college students from the United States to work during the summer as inspectors, an indication that they are not willing to invest in more expensive or sophisticated auditing programs, critics say.

Chinese suppliers regularly outsource to other suppliers, who may in turn outsource to yet another operation, creating a supply chain that is hard to follow — let alone inspect.

Ok, consuming goods from China helps support this demoralizing system where underage, uneducated, and unprotected workers slave for capitalist interests. How can American companies show that they are taking these weighty ethical concerns seriously?

There is little that any Western company can do about those issues, no matter how seriously they take corporate social responsibility — other than leaving China.

In Chinese Factories, Lost Fingers and Low Pay [NYT]
(AP Photo/Oded Balilty)