Brick kiln ‘slavery’ exposé follows Olympic child labour report
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Senior Chinese officials vowed to act on an international NGO and trade union report alleging abusive practices in four Pearl Delta factories contracted to produce goods for the 2008 Olympics, even as the report was overshadowed by shocking revelations of forced child labour in brick kilns in the provinces of Henan and Shanxi.
“No Medal for the Olympics on Labour Rights,” published by the PlayFair 2008 campaign, ‘named and shamed’ a Taiwan-owned stationery company and three Hong Kong-owned factories producing sports bags and headwear in Shenzhen. All four companies had been licensed by the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) to supply merchandise for the Olympics.
PlayFair’s report alleges cases of “child labour, excessive working hours, routine underpayment of wages, and blatant disregard of Chinese labour laws.”
The child labour charge was levelled at the Rekit Stationery Company where an undercover investigator who took a job at the factory reported that more than 20 children aged 12-16 were hired during school holidays to work 13-hour shifts on packing lines.
According to PlayFair, three out of the four factories investigated were paying less than the legal minimum wage—in the case of Yue Wing Cheong Light Products Ltd, less than half the statutory minimum. The report also highlights compulsory overtime, unhealthy workplace conditions and heavy fines for workers who report for work late or take time off.
Executive Vice President of BOCOG, Jiang Xiaoyu (蒋效愚), said in Hong Kong on June 11 that he took the allegations seriously and that “If any factory is found to have broken the law it will be punished.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang (秦刚), told a June 12 press conference that BOCOG upholds “very strict labour rights and social responsibility standards” and that licensees who violate those standards will be “punished severely.”
Chinese media and websites widely interpreted these official responses as meaning that BOCOG will revoke the four companies’ licenses to produce Olympics merchandise.
“We feel that is exactly the wrong response,” PlayFair campaigner Ineke Zeldenrust told China Development Brief in a telephone interview. “The [global] brands have already learned that to deny and to cut and run is exactly the wrong kind of response. We’re looking for a different response, a structural response.”
At present, Zeldenrust argues, “If the [BOCOG] orders go elsewhere we have zero guarantees that it will be any different.”
The PlayFair report had likewise suggested that conditions in the factories investigated were typical rather than exceptional, “no different from those which prevail in many thousands of workplaces scattered throughout China.”
Brands steady at the helm
Representatives of two major sportswear brands, Adidas and Nike, acknowledge that the conditions described in the PlayFair report are quite familiar in supply chains but say they are making headway with their own codes of conduct and plan no special action in light of publicity surrounding the Beijing Olympics.
William Anderson, Adidas’ Head of Social and Environmental Affairs for the Asia Pacific, said in a phone interview that in 2004 Reebok, which has since been acquired by Adidas, sourced from one of the factories named in the PlayFair report. But, he continued, Adidas “terminated the business relationship because we had issues with excessive working hours and no proper employment record keeping.”
Sonya Durkin-Jones, Nike’s Corporate Responsibility Compliance Director for North Asia, wrote in an email to China Development Brief that Nike had sourced periodically from the same factory from 2001 until February 2007, when “the factory was deactivated from our sourcing base for business reasons.”
Durkin-Jones noted that “The findings in the PlayFair report echo areas for improvement in working conditions” that Nike has itself identified in global supply chains. “We hope this [PlayFair] report will further industry efforts to improve working conditions,” she added.
Nike, she said, is committed to “responsible competitiveness.” Its mid-term objectives include eliminating excessive overtime by 2011 in a global supply chain that involves nearly 800,000 workers in contract factories worldwide.
Anderson described public debate about supply chains as “healthy,” adding “I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that NGOs are acting as watchdogs, and I don’t think it’s damaging for the Olympics.”
He did not foresee significant reputational risk for Adidas, which is a local sponsor of the Beijing Olympics, in pressure-group activism surrounding the event. “We have fairly comprehensive programmes in place,” he said. “We will have lots of journalists wishing to visit factories and there will be more work, but there will be no major change in the day to day work of monitoring conditions.”
With respect to Adidas’ own sourcing Anderson said: “There are always issues, that’s the nature of a large supply train, and we are in about 260 factories in China . . . But we generally find we have a much higher success rate [than external social auditors] in finding issues because team members are better trained, retained longer, visit the same places, and so begin to develop a relationship.”
Because of their large orders and extensive compliance workforce, Anderson argues, global brands are relatively well placed to ensure humane working conditions.
PlayFair spokesperson Zeldenrust meanwhile pledges that “this campaign will run until the Games” and will include “worker exchanges” and public events in various countries. Activists, she suggested, may approach competing athletes for endorsement of the campaign. “People can use the logo to do creative things so hopefully it will be really big.”
Asked whether PlayFair is engaged in research for future reports, Zeldenrust said “What we’ve basically done is to work with some very credible and experienced local researchers. We’re definitely going to continue getting information and putting information out.”
PlayFair is also lobbying the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to create mechanisms for ensuring labour rights compliance throughout Olympic merchandise supply chains.
"The IOC has recognised that there is a problem, but they are not giving it the attention it deserves. A solution is needed not just for these four factories but for the whole of Olympics merchandise" says Guy Ryder, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Congress (ITUC), in a statement on the PlayFair 2008 website (www.PlayFair2008.org). “The IOC must take responsibility for the whole of Olympics licensing and apply the same degree of enthusiasm to protecting workers' rights as they do to protecting the copyright of the Olympic rings."
The ITUC, the International Textile, Garment and Leather Worker’s Federation and the Clean Clothes Campaign are the main organisers of the PlayFair 2008 campaign, which has also been endorsed by more than 30 trade unions and NGOs in 14 countries.
A notable omission is Oxfam International, nine of whose national affiliates played a leading role in a PlayFair campaign around the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Kelly Dent, Labour Rights Advocacy Coordinator of Oxfam Australia, told China Development Brief by email that “Oxfam International's strategic campaigning priorities in coming years will relate to agriculture, trade and climate change. Due to these priorities and resource constraints we will not be involved in campaigning relating to the Beijing Olympics.”
Nevertheless, according to Dent, Oxfam “will continue to be involved in lobbying of sportswear brands to improve their labour practices, as well as lobbying other clothing brands through different channels.”
Oxfam Hong Kong had distanced itself from the 2004 PlayFair campaign, which also highlighted conditions in Chinese factories, for fear that association with the global advocacy effort would cause difficulties for the NGO’s development programmes on China’s mainland.
Within days of the release of the PlayFair 2008 report, its allegations of child labour were both underlined and eclipsed by breaking news of children and mentally handicapped adults being forced into servitude in the provinces of Henan and Shanxi.
According to a June 13 report in the Beijing Daily (新京报), more than 400 parents, mainly from Henan, posted an Internet appeal for help in rescuing children who had been abducted from the precincts of train and bus stations and sold into slave-like conditions in brick factories in Shanxi. The parents said they had spent all their money and risked their lives to travel through remote areas of Shanxi looking for their children, the youngest of whom was only eight. They managed to rescue about 40 children but believed that many remained in conditions of forced servitude.
Within days, the newspaper reported, 580,000 netizens had read the parents’ appeal.
News media across the country began to cover the case and the authorities launched a high-profile investigation, with a reported 35,000 police officers mobilised in Henan alone.
By June 17, according to Chinese media reports, the police had freed 568 people from forced labour, including 22 under the age of 18, and had arrested 168 people.
The Chinese public has been deeply shocked by TV footage of police raids and harrowing press reports of adults and children forced to labour for up to eighteen hours a day, beaten and burnt by foremen and imprisoned by guards and savage dogs.
Editorials in leading newspapers have complained that China’s labour laws are not worth the paper they are written on, while Internet bulletin boards seethe with moral outrage and calls for judicial vengeance.
Report by Nick Young, June 17, 2007