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Blood, Tears, Toys and NGOs

Multinational firms with brand-name products can’t afford a lawless work environment in China

Anita Chan and Jonathan Unger

CANBERRA: The rush is on to buy Christmas toys galore. Western consumers want cheap merchandise, and Chinese workers labor to manufacture them. But this year, customers are cautious about the shiploads of toys coming out of China, ever since the massive recalls started in August. The Western news media and political cartoonists almost exclusively point the finger at "China," as if the country was guilty of negligently injuring American children.

In the recent jousting between the US and the Chinese government over toy recalls, the Americans took the moral high road from the start, putting Beijing on the defensive. The Chinese government soon conceded and declared it would be stricter from now on with its inspections.

Not often noted in the uproar was that the toys shipped from China are mostly made by Hong Kong firms using cheap labor in China. Their factories in China make toys for big brand-name companies such as Mattel and Disney based on designs that the American corporations provide. So when Western children swallowed magnets from poorly designed Mattel toys, who should be blamed? In September, Mattel, after recalling 21 million toys, apologized to the Chinese government for allowing China to take the rap for the recalls. Even the lead-paint problem could be traced to the door of a Hong Kong businessman who, squeezed between rising costs and Mattel's demands for a low price, had substituted a cheap lead paint in his China-based factory.

So who was at fault? Companies like Mattel, plus the Hong Kong businesspeople who produce for them in China, and, yes, the US and Chinese governments - who hold responsibility for lax inspections of the goods flowing between their shores. But the Western news media targeted "China."

Senator Hillary Clinton expressed a common sentiment when, in a campaign speech in Iowa on November 20, she observed there had been 72 recalls of toy models so far this year: "That's approximately 32 million individual toys. And more than 99 percent of them were made in China.... If China expects to do business with the United States, they're going to have to meet higher standards."

In the Western media reports, as in Clinton's speech, the identity of the victims is clear - it is "our children" who are endangered. Period. Here, too, the lens gets distorted. No mention has been made of the many hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers who labor under dangerous conditions, making toys and many hundreds of other kinds of export products. If lead paint is used, workers are the ones exposed to lead hour after hour. In numerous industries, all too often workers are exposed to noxious fumes and dangerous machinery. They are poor migrants from China's countryside, and they endure work days averaging 11 hours, six to seven days a week, to earn take-home pay of $100 or less a month.

In China, a truly frightening number of such workers suffer from occupational diseases and industrial injuries. As just one example, a survey of hospitals in the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong Province revealed that in a recent year they had dealt with more than 40,000 fingers that had been chopped off by machinery. Another Chinese source states, more alarmingly, that in the factories of Shenzhen in a recent year 17,000 limbs were severed.

The neglect of safety standards in these factories used to be more severe before the big brand-name corporations that contract out their production to China-based factories came under attack in the 1990s in an anti-sweatshop campaign by Western non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In response, the Western companies have introduced corporate social-responsibility (CSR) programs and started monitoring their suppliers' factories. Without such monitoring, there would surely be even more injuries and poisonings today. In the multinationals' various reports, they never cease to pride themselves on their CSR efforts. But in the lead-paint recalls fiasco, the companies involved became silent on CSR.

Most of the CSR programs have made little headway in improving the conditions of workers who contract occupational diseases or are injured. Bosses simply discard most of them with scant compensation. Traumatized, they are in need of legal, moral and financial support. To secure adequate compensation requires them to run a gauntlet of legal procedures they can ill afford.

Increasingly, they have begun turning to people similar to themselves who have become paralegals. Many of these are former workers who had been injured or contracted occupational diseases and sued their bosses for compensation. After settling their own cases, they began helping others to do the same, and over time they have become increasingly conversant with the law and legal proceedings. In the Pearl River Delta region alone, there are now some 500 such paralegals, known in China as "citizens' agents." To support themselves, most of them charge a percentage of the compensation when a case is successful. Some register as a legal counseling service; others attach themselves to law firms, and yet others set up NGOs, though normally these need to be disguised by being registered as businesses

By 2007, these citizens' agents had become successful to the point of arousing open hostility from some manufacturers, and they had come to the attention of the provincial government. The authorities started to clamp down on their activities by disqualifying them from providing legal representation.

On the same day that Senator Clinton presented her speech, on the other side of the globe in Shenzhen, the Delta's biggest locus for export industry, Huang Qingnan, a paralegal who headed a labor NGO, was brutally attacked in broad daylight by two thugs, who inflicted a number of vicious stab wounds. One of his legs was repeatedly hacked at and almost severed. At the time of writing, Huang is still in critical condition, and if he survives, may lose his leg. Huang was already badly scarred and deformed due to an industrial fire, which had led him to become a paralegal.

The assault against him followed on the heels of two recent daytime hooligan attacks against Huang's NGO office. In the first of these, as a warning, several men destroyed the NGO's doors with iron bars. In the second incident, a larger group of thugs wielding steel poles smashed the office and its equipment and threatened workers there seeking legal aid, while several local policemen looked on.

Several Hong Kong labor NGOs are mounting an international campaign to draw attention to Huang's plight and to the dangerous conditions facing his and other labor NGOs in the area. The campaign asks the Chinese government to bring the culprits to justice.

The brutality against Huang could herald the beginning of a new stage in the Delta's labor history. It also puts new pressure on the major multinational corporations whose brand-name products, such as iPod, are produced in this area. The corporations do not want it said that their brand-name goods are produced in a lawless, repressive environment. The toy recalls may be only first of the publicity nightmares the companies will need to fend off.

Anita Chan and Jonathan Unger are academics at the Australian National University's Contemporary China Centre. Click here to read Dr. Chan's papers on Chinese labor issues. Click here to read Dr. Unger's papers.

© 2007 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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