Monday, June 20, 2005

China and Sweatshops

As part's of its cover story on the "New Revolution" in China, Time magazine profiles Wal-Mart's affect on the rising world power. Not only is the mega-retailer using an increasing number of Chinese suppliers but they are opening more and more stores within the country. According to the article, there is a general sense that Wal-Mart's presence in China is a good thing for both entities: for the former it keeps prices down, for the latter, it is bringing an American-style business efficiency to land laden with bureaucracy and special favors. However for some there are definite drawbacks:

"Wal-Mart is both a beneficiary and a driver of the race to the bottom in the global economy," says Alejandra Domenzain, an associate director of Sweatshop Watch, a U.S. advocacy group. "It has enormous leverage, and how it uses that leverage in the pursuit of ever cheaper labor has enormous consequences for communities in the United States."
On the issue of sweatshops, the article mentions the following:

In China, where sweatshops are alive and well, the company insists those measures make a difference. Suppliers, including those who sell to Wal-Mart indirectly through other companies, must limit the work week to 40 hours plus no more than three hours of overtime a day, meet safety requirements and provide decent accommodations for workers. Even those critical of Wal-Mart concede that the standards can make conditions at a Wal-Mart supplier's factory more bearable than they are at a lot of other low-wage factories in China. "When the standards are enforced," says Domenzain, "I think they are a step in the right direction. The question is, How rigorously are they enforced?"
The answer: not too rigorously. Besides Time’s mention of the prevalence of document faking to demonstrate supposed compliance there is additional evidence that Wal-Mart’s suppliers in China and elsewhere aren’t treating their employees even remotely well.

In fact, Dateline ran a piece last Friday demonstrating the human cost behind the bargains at places like Wal-Mart. Dateline set up a fake clothing company in order to get access to oversees factories that supply U.S. companies. Despite the assurances of multiple managers that their factories comply with basic codes of conduct, interviews with women such as Masuma, a worker who sews stripes on Wal-Mart pants, tell a different story:

Masuma: “Usually I work until at least 8 pm, but often they will keep us and make us work until 10 p.m.”

And she says she frequently has to work Fridays, the Muslim holy day, which by law is supposed to be a day off. On average, she says she works more than 70 hours a week. At least 10 hours more than allowed by the local law. It's not hard to confirm that many factories exceed that limit.

Masuma says she's paid more like 17 cents an hour, a perfectly legal wage here, and more than many Bangladeshis earn. So for a 70-hour week, she brings home about $12. What kind of life does that buy?

Masuma showed us her home, two small rooms where she says she lives with her mother, two year old daughter, and a couple of other garment workers. There's no table. She makes and eats breakfast on the floor. Their only water comes from a pump they share with neighbors. After paying the rent, Masuma says she cannot afford very much. Her typical diet is rice and lentils. Fish and meat are too expensive, she says. One chicken costs more than she's paid for an entire day.
Read the whole thing.