Saturday, August 20, 2005

Is Disney abusing Chinese workers to make books to sell to US kids?

I need to start this post by reminding readers that Disney is a transnational media firm, courting an international consumer market with largely Western European- and US-inspired media products of all sorts, which owns, among other properties, ABC. I also need to mention that I could find nothing about this story on the ABC News web site.

A report in the UK Guardian today was headlined "Disney accused of labour abuses in Chinese factories." I don't usually reprint whole articles verbatim on my weblog, but in this case I think I should:

Walt Disney said yesterday it had hired an auditor to investigate claims of widespread labour abuses in Chinese factories that make children's books for the company.

A report from the National Labor Committee, a human rights group, alleges that workers are forced to be at factories for up to 15 hours a day, are paid below the minimum wage and denied holiday, overtime and maternity pay. It was based on interviews with 120 workers at five factories in Shenzhen province.

The report says one company, Hung Hing Printing, has one of the worst records in the province for industrial accidents. One 24-year-old woman was crushed to death in 2002 by a hole-punching machine and a man killed when he accidentally touched an exposed mechanism. Crushed hands and fingers from unsafe machinery are common occurrences, it alleges.

Interviews and video footage from the plants were supplied by a Hong Kong-based human rights organisation, Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehaviour.

"At one printing factory producing Disney books, there are four to five accidents a week. People lost their fingers and palms," said Billy Hung, coordinator of the group. "But ... the factory just hires new workers and the accidents simply continue."

Workers said they had to meet targets or lose pay, which meant they usually worked longer than the official 12-hour day. The group claimed workers were paid just 35 cents (20 pence) an hour, below the region's minimum wage of 42 cents an hour.

Supervisors are also said to scream insults at workers such as: "You are a stupid pig." According to testimony, workers often faint due to the intense heat and fast-paced work. One said: "In meetings management would say, 'if you faint, you deserve it and I won't sympathise with you'. "

Disney said it took the allegations "very seriously" and had asked the non-profit social auditing firm Verité to investigate. The firm said it would "take the appropriate actions to remediate violations found".

The report also claims that Disney audits are a sham and that workers are coached on what to say or face being fired.

At another firm, Nord Race in the city of Dongguan, staff are paid just 33 cents an hour. The report claims the firm demands 13- to 15-hour shifts, seven days a week, in stifling heat. Workers have no health insurance and if late, they lose half an hour's wages for every minute they miss, it claims.

Nord Race denied the claims in a statement to the Associated Press and said it complied with Chinese labour laws.

The report has been published at a sensitive time for Disney, just a month before Hong Kong's Disneyland theme park is officially opened.

This story should remind us that, far from "virtual" and "weightless," the global information economy -- both in its hardware products like CD players and computers, and in its software or content products like books, CDs, and DVDs -- is still a material, messy, and often dangerous production economy. Formed in 1981, the National Labor Committee is one of the many global activist organizations which, in its own words, believes:

Transnational corporations now roam the world to find the cheapest and most vulnerable workers. The people who stitch together our jeans and assemble our CD-players are mostly young women in Central America, Mexico, Bangladesh, China and other poor nations, many working 12 to 14-hour days for pennies an hour. The lack of accountability on the part of our U.S. corporations--now operating all over the world, and the resulting dehumanization of this new global workforce is emerging as the overwhelming moral crisis of the 21st century. The struggle for rule of law in the global economy--to ensure respect for the fundamental rights of the millions of workers producing goods for the U.S. market--has become the great new civil rights movement of our time.

You might remember the NLC as one of the organizations involved in the 1996 Kathy Lee Gifford / WalMart sweatshop debate. More information on their Disney report, and their other projects, can be found on their web site.

More information on Disney is available from independent sources, including a list of their media holdings (compiled by the Columbia Journalism Review) and an investor's fact sheet by Hoover's.

You may of course want to get Disney's side of this story as well. Visit their corporate website at -- especially their public relations statement on international labor standards.

The company has not yet issued a press release on its web site responding to the NLC accusations.

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