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)


Edit Your Comment

  1. snoop-blog says:


  2. XTC46 says:

    what would these kids be doing if they couldn’t find jobs in the factories? would it be better to raise the wage high enough that it is more efficient to just build a robot to make the toys, then have 100 million people out of jobs? I’m all for fair wage and decent work conditions, but the fact is, they are in the position becasue it is cheap to pay them. Once it costs more to deal with people, they lose their jobs. This is why US companies out source, its cheaper. People should get paid a fair wage for the job they do. If you sit in a factory (or stand in this case) and it doesn’t take much skill to do your job, then you don’t get paid much. Go find a better job. Then, when no one wants to do that crappy factory job becasue the pay sucks and they can get jobs elseware, the factory owners raise the wage and it all works it self out.

  3. Hammerfall10 says:

    @xtc46: You seem to forget that this is China, not the United States. You dont have the opportunity to “look for a better job”. Nor can you afford to not work until you find something you like.

  4. Eric1285 says:

    Gosh…why didn’t I look for an internship as a factory auditor? I could have made so much money in bribes last summer…plus I speak the language. Oh well..

  5. Mills says:

    How much more would you pay to know your latest Christmas present wasn’t made by a child?

    I think, for a large number of consumers, the answer is: nothing.

  6. ARP says:

    MILLS has is. We all talk about our outrage about child labor, lead, human rights, etc. in China. But god forbid if we have to spend $0.25 more for anything.

  7. PARTYPIMP says:

    China is a melting pot of chemicals and chaos. they are destroying their environs though cheap labor and very lax pollution laws.
    Not to mention they are a communist country who either have people work by choice or by force.
    Can’t wait to see Olympians hacking up lungs at the end of their events because of the horrid air pollution.

  8. ironchef says:

    but they have free healthcare.

    something to think about before we start wagging our fingers.

  9. evilhapposai says:

    This has been going on for years and nothing changes. They shut a factory down and another pops up. The company selling the sweatshop goods gets a fine that barely equals a slap on the wrist. They twist it around as good publicity and the ignorant masses are brainwashed by the media to forget it ever happened. Others are heartless and dont give a rats ass as long as they save a penny or two.

    We something like a third party inspector in every factory that exports anything to North America and fines and penalties that ACTUALLY are penalties! Or better yet we need to move the factories and jobs back to the USA.

  10. KingPsyz says:

    I see what you did there.

  11. girly says:

    You know it’s funny, you read in history books about how kids used to work in factories, and how there were slaves, and other things people lived with, and you think “how could that happen; why did people tolerate those practices?”

    Now I see how it could happen–it’s happening now to people in China and our businesses are just supporting it because people don’t feel responsible or affected.

    About two weeks before Christmas I contacted Sears. I found out some items I encouraged someone to buy as gifts (Time Out and Colorworks brands) because they were listed as “Made in USA” were actually Made in China as marked on the actual product. Sears said it was a mistake and they would change the website…it’s been three weeks now, and all of those products still say that they are Made in the USA.

  12. girly says:

    Actually, it looks like the Colorworks products were corrected, but not the “Time Out” brand (which there are way more products for).

  13. acasto says:

    I think I have their same plan of free health care here, it’s called the hope it clears up on it’s own plan.

  14. czarandy says:

    What would happen if wages were higher or conditions were better? They would just hire fewer workers.

    There’s no easy solution to poor pay/working conditions in developing nations.

  15. ARP says:

    In order the level the playing field, I think we should impose tariffs on goods imported based on the conditions in that country. So, the fewer environmental laws, the fewer human rights and labor rules, the lower safety standards, etc. equal a higher tariff. It’s a penatly for not playing by the rules that everyone else does. Improve your conditions and the tariff gets reduced or dropped.

  16. Comeaja says:

    Are you serious? Theres sweatshops in China!? Oh my god someone do somthing!

    Oh wait. We’ve known this for a long, long time.

    No news here consumerist. This is comparavle to posting a headline like “DISNEY: TARGETING THEIR SHOWS AT YOUR CHILDREN!”

  17. LucyInTheSky says:

    @Comeaja: slow news day?

    that photo is a little disturbing.

  18. girly says:

    @czarandy: What exactly is the problem with fewer workers at higher pay and better conditions?

    I’m no expert, and obviously it won’t work out for everyone, but overall it seems better.

    In 50’s America weren’t families living on one income (for the most part) and people were doing pretty well?

  19. courtneywoah says:

    people DO NOT care that this is going on, its the “out of sight out of mind” mentality. When people are shopping in Walmart they don’t ask themselves “why am I getting this product at such a low price” because they can’t look beyond the need to consume. Obviously sweat shops in China are nothing new, but these sweatshops (or sometimes called swallows) are popping up all over the place. If the rules in China get too tough, the corporations leave and go somewhere else. Its a catch 22 situation. Besides, there are still so many people out there who argue that this is good for their economies (as in if they didn’t have these sweatshops they would have nothing else, which I don’t agree with). It’s not like we can bring these so called jobs back to the U.S. either because they are not the same type of work.

  20. yamahagrand says:

    That cheap labor is also responsible for the $300 Billion trade deficit this year with China. It’s gotten so bad that we are now borrowing money from China (and others) while still supporting tax breaks that don’t seem to be creating the jobs and wealth that were promised. Add to this that we now see China on a 10 year military buildup that even has the attention of the US DOD. The world’s next superpower is China and they are buying and building up using US Dollars from consumers like you and me. Further they now have a blood thirst for oil and are partly responsible for driving the cost oil, copper, steel, etc. to record highs. All this and their people are essentially no better off than they were in the rice fields.

    It’s nothing more than unbridaled capitalism with the end resulting in a weaker America and a stronger Communist China.

    I hate Chinese made products and look at every label on every item I buy to avoid Chinese whenever possible. It’s my own brand of patriotism.

  21. NickRB says:

    @girly: The problem is that you just put a lot of people out of work. So they will either be unemployed and starve to death, or they will go get much more dangerous lower paying jobs elsewhere.

    Now companies could produce their goods here, but I’m willing to bet you wouldn’t buy the computer you’re reading this on if it still cost $10,000 because it was being produced in the United States. Right?

    Our thriftiness has actually helped these people get better paying and SAFER jobs than they would have had without it.

    How about I put it this way? $40,000 people broke their fingers working in Chinese sweatshops last year? According to the CDC the #1 leading cause of death in Americans age 1-44 is death in an automobile accident. 26,122 people died in vehicle accidents in 2004. thats 26,122 people that DIED not just “broke a finger”.

    Clearly we need to outlaw cars before we outlaw sweatshops. Cars are MUCH more dangerous than sweatshops.

  22. girly says:

    @NickRB: I think you are kind of going to a bad-case-scenario (maybe not the ‘worst’) to make your point.

    As I asked of what the other guy posed, if there are fewer workers being hired because the remaining ones are being payed more and are in better conditions, isn’t it possible that they will be able to support some of the people who will become unemployed with their better salary?

    Our thriftiness may have gotten them safe-“er” jobs, but now that there is increased awareness of the situation, isn’t it fair to say that corporations should lift the bar higher now?

    I realized that there are many Chinese workers, so 40,000 may not be a lot (I’m really not sure if it is). It does sound like a lot, though, and it is likely that something can be done about it. Cars are, perhaps, more dangerous, but we do have standards about what cars can be on the roads, and also how they are driven and other safety precautions.

  23. JollyJumjuck says:

    Just wait. A few decades from now when the economy completely collapses in North America, this is how they will be treating the working class here as well. When the unemployment rate reaches a critical level and people will be forced to do just about anything in order to survive, the idea of “human rights” and “labor laws” will be thrown out the window. All the while, of course, the rich and powerful will benefit.

  24. this is breaking news? Go on. Next you’ll be pointing the finger at Mexico with your crazy theories.

    Nine years ago, I was on a taskforce that worked to stop Los Angeles Unified from buying sports equipment from sweatshops in China. This is not new.

    Tarantino, in filming Kill Bill, remarked on how the gigantic studios housed entire families who worked for the studios for their entire lives and never left the lot. If he had thought that through a little bit, he would have figured out why he shouldn’t have been shooting in China.

  25. NicholsIV says:

    “Most Favored Nation”

    the working conditions in China are deplorable (I’ve seen them); don’t believe that it is just a developing nation, there is the money to give decent pay, but no incentive to pay the workers.

    Don’t think that this is unique to China, it happens all over the world; if Americans really cared, they would stop buying Chinese products (unlikely to happen).

  26. poodlepoodle says:

    You can easily avoid buying stuff from China, you just have to be willing to pay extra. You can buy some glazed pottery from China (hoping that they didn’t use lead in the glaze) or you can buy something similar from France or Italy.

    The thing from France or Italy is going to be many times more expensive. But remember in buying it you’re paying for the conditions it was made under, good wages, health care, etc.

    But in general I find that most people want to live in the 1st world, but not pay for anything constructed in it.

  27. catnapped says:

    @ARP: Even assuming people were willing to pay a little more for the products, what’s to say the executives won’t just pocket the money while just keeping the sweatshops going?

  28. yamahagrand says:

    All this talk about the people are unwilling to pay more for American produced goods is a bunch of balogna. Do you think that manufacturers sat around the table complaining that no parent will buy their US made toys bacause they cost too much? That’s not it at all. Plenty of people were buying US goods for many years and were willing to py the cost to get them. What REALLY happened was that corporate greed kicked in and those manufacturers figured they would increase profits by using foreign labor. They didn’t go there to say YOU money, they went their to make THEM more money. That we ultimately get some things a little cheaper was a secondary result of our move to outsource the labor.

    Here’s the question. How did America become the richest and largest consumer class in the world? Here’s the answer. We got rid of our own sweat shops and created laws to protect our workers. We allowed our people to negotiate living wages and here we are. Stop pretending that the free market is going to prevail and preserve our standard of living. It won’t. We need to look out for our own and understand that there is and has always been a price to pay for keeping our economy strong. We need to look out for each other rather than to declare that we want cheaper goods at any cost. It is a myopic point of view that doesn’t understand that these low prices that some of us demand WILL come at a price. There will be negative ramifications at the end of the day and maybe we need to start practicing a little of what the rest of the world practices. Protectionism. Until the rules of free trade become fair we will continue to lose our way. In the interim we will continue to lose our way to developing nations and their oppressive governments.

  29. ARP says:

    CATNAPPED- It’s essentially a tax, so the CEO’s don’t get that money. We can put the money into healthcare, education (we’re lagging in science and engineerinig- I wonder why), etc. and make us more competitive in the market. For a concrete example, there’s a number of manufacturing jobs moving to Canada because of better education systems and reduced employer healthcare costs.

  30. girly says:

    @Mills: We shouldn’t necessarily have to pay more.

    What happened to the “rewards” of having a business being tied to all the “risks” you have to take. They can’t take profits and be allowed to be negligent about where their obtain what they sell.

    We really shouldn’t be concerned about having to pay more or what they will charge to be able to do business ethically. That should be a minimum requirement of doing business.

    But as some people have said, it was more that ethics were traded for profits, rather than being traded for lower prices for consumers being the motivation.

  31. Rusted says:

    Sky discovered to be blue from time to time will be the next news flash.

  32. Tragically Hipster was That Girl Hates You says:

    Wait a minute I thought this was common knowledge. Usually countries that are Free Trade will have these.

    Of course my Antro professor could have been a crazy communist to tell us such things.

    I don’t know it’s early and I’m about to passout.

  33. Tragically Hipster was That Girl Hates You says:

    @That Girl Hates You: Also (forgot this) this is one of the many reason why I don’t shop at WalMart. Some companies I really don’t think know this is going on because of the same reasons, of course many most likely do since its cheap and they just want the money.

  34. pauliee says:

    Of course the factory conditions are crappy by first world standards but in terms of dollars and cents (or yuan and mao), slaving in a factory for US$100 a month beats the hell out of slaving over fields and making only a little more than that a year, which is what lots of migrant workers in China come from. I’m not saying that the life of a factory worker in Guangzhou or Shanghai or whatever is easy or safe, but what are their other options?

    A lot of Chinese factory workers and lower-paid jobs in big cities come with room and board, so the salaries they get paid can all be sent to their home villages to pay for the education and upbringing of their children. I’m not saying that they’re unique among parents, but Chinese parents are more than willing to work their asses off to provide for their kids’ education. Foreign buyers provide an opportunity to do that.

    I can’t defend underage kids working in factories, though. That’s just wrong.

    But the Chinese elites are a lot more cosmopolitan than ever and I think there’s a genuine sentiment among the government to protect workers better; in fact, a new labor law with better worker protections just came into effect on January 1.

  35. yamahagrand says:

    @pauliee: I’m not saying there is no merit for those workers but I am saying that until the bar is raised with regard to wages and safety then we’ll never be able to compete with them. People tend to look for the good in what’s going on here when the bad far outweighs the good. We are losing our manufacturing prowess and good wage jobs so what’s the trade off for us? We save a few bucks on goods and we help a poor Chinese family make ends meet just a little better. By the time all those people get their standards of living up to something decent we will ALL be out of a job. The only way to create any equity is for our trading partners to enforce fair labor laws such that we are trading with countries whose labor force are making real living wages and have real workplace protections. Anything else will continue the status quo and we’ll continue to lose jobs to them. The longer term result is that we’re helping to build the Chinese into an industrial giant and along with that comes military strength and economic power. Let us not forget that they are playing the capitalism game in the name of advancing Communism. Never ever forget that. And let yourself be reminded when oil reaches $200+ per barrell because they are consuming like never before. WE are largely the reason for all this and we should consider the ramifications of out actions before it’s too late to do anything about it. We DEFINITELY should cease borrowing from them and selling them more military technology which we just announced this week. We are not thinking with our heads as much as our wallets.

  36. 00exmachina says:

    @girly: There are a couple reasons this was true in the 50’s.
    First off the dollar was worth more because at that point it was still backed by precious metals instead of consumer faith in the economy.

    Second, the US was one of the few (possibly only) industrialized nation that wasn’t bombed into oblivion 10 years before and still trying to rebuild their economy and infrastructure.

  37. rjhiggins says:

    To those saying this isn’t news: Does that mean nobody should write about it, or keep pointing it out? It’s not news that people are dying by the thousands in Darfur, but since it’s already been reported there’s no need for further stories, right?

    Until these horrible circumstances are corrected I think the New York Times (and Consumerist) should continue to keep the story in front of us. It’s far more important than reading the latest tale of woe of someone who feels they got screwed by an airline (speaking of old news…)

  38. girly says:

    I think people are just training on the “breaking news” title, but I took that as kind of sarcastic (maybe I’m wrong).

    But yeah, the title is the least important part of this article

  39. pauliee says:

    @yamahagrand: Like I mentioned already, there is a brand-new labor law in China (effective Jan 1 2008), there are new laws in the pipeline about raising minimum wages, etc. I’m not making this stuff up but you may have trouble Googling it in English. A HUGE proportion of elites in China have been educated abroad, in Australia, US, and EU, and they’ve absorbed and brought back Western values. Communism is not an ideological goal they’ve seriously pursued since the late 70s; the general contemporary thinking is a movement towards EU style socialism. This isn’t a perspective you would easily get from someone living outside of China because most people are actually too eager to point out the negatives in daily conversation. The positives only come out in business hype.

    But seriously — “competing” on wages? You’ve got to be kidding me. I live REALLY well off of a quarter of my USD-denominated salary in Beijing, I make less than 75% of the median salary in the US, and I still put four USD-denominated figures into my American savings account every month.

  40. girly says:

    @pauliee: But they already have laws protecting workers, how will they enforce new laws? Enforcement was the main problem, I thought.

  41. B1663R says:

    greed is good. there is no one to blame but ouselves. if you feel guilty, don’t buy stuff made in China. (btw, good luck with that)

    we like our materialistic crap and we don’t want to pay a penny more for it.


  42. yamahagrand says:

    @girly: Exactly right.

  43. yamahagrand says:

    As a percentage of GDP China and Russia now outspends the US. Greed is NOT good. It is building an unfriendly superpower in China. They may want to be Westernized but the Government sure does like to censor any talk of freedom. See the recent Yahoo and Google news with regard to their cooperation with the Red Chinese. They, no matter what you think, are not our friends. And GREED is responsible for the increasing power of their corrupt Gov’t.

  44. GamblesAC2 says:

    and in news about things that fail to surprise.