Disney sweats over sweatshop charges in China
For the families of 800 workers at Huang Xing Light Manufacturing factory in Shenzhen in southern China, the Chinese New Year, which begins on February 18, will begin on quite a gloomy note.
That’s because only last fortnight, the factory, which used to supply Mickey Mouse and other Disney memorabilia to Tokyo Disneyland, downed shutters and laid off these 800 factory workers without any compensation.
On February 1, hundreds of dismissed workers staged violent protests outside the factory premises, demanding back-wages and compensation, but were dispersed by security officials.
The closure of Huang Xing came about after Disney, which accounted for over 80 per cent of the factory, pulled the plug on the relationship following damaging revelations by a Hong Kong-based labour activist group about working conditions at the factory.
In a report released in December 2006, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), a non-profit agency that works to advance workers’ rights and “monitor” corporate behaviour, revealed gross violations of Chinese labour laws and international codes of conduct relating to work safety and compensation at seven factories that manufactured Disney merchandise in southern China.
That report validated the findings of an earlier report in 2005 from SACOM that had alleged sweatshop-like working conditions in the factories. Occupational injuries were prevalent, the report alleged.
In one factory, an average of three instances of occupational injury were reported every week. In addition, workers were paid far less than the statutory minimum wage, were forced to work longer hours than required under law, and accommodated in unsanitary dormitories.
“Our findings were heartbreaking,” SACOM coordinator Jenny Chan told DNA on Wednesday. “We’d gone to study labour conditions in southern China,” which had by then become the ‘factory floor of the world’ and a pivotal link in the global supply chain of many multinationals. What the SACOM stumbled on was working-class hell.
Those reports helped initiate a consumer campaign of sorts in Hong Kong and elsewhere and focussed media and civil society attention on the poor labour standards in southern China.
SACOM also teamed up with pressure groups overseas – such as the Clean Clothes Campaign – to hold multinationals like Disney accountable on their home turf as well.
The damning reports stirred Disney enough to respond by pulling the plug on the relationship with the supplier — a policy that SACOM criticises as “cut and run”. Says Chan: “This is the worst response to workers’ rights violations. Disney must take responsibility for the labour rights violations carried out by its suppliers.”
Disney, on the other hand, disavows any responsibility for the closure. The company’s Asia regional corporate communications director Alannah Goss said in a statement that Disney had been working with both the licensee and the factory for many months and that “notwithstanding multiple offers by Disney to help the licensee and factory to improve standards, the licensee has chosen to walk away.”'
Chan acknowledges that SACOM’s well-intentioned efforts to protect workers’ rights have had the unintended effect of seeing the workers lose their jobs, and admits that the group has been under “huge pressure” in recent days.
“At one level, what has happened is very sad. But it’s important to bear in mind that Disney is the most important player in the relationship, and it was Disney that failed to correct rights violations in the factories or provide management solutions to the problem. If they had taken our suggestions seriously, this worst-case scenario wouldn’t have happened.”
Adds Chan: “Our objective hasn’t changed. We still want Disney and other corporates to bear their social responsibility and fulfil their obligations to ensure that workers are properly treated and labour laws are followed.”
More recently, SACOM has expanded the canvas of its operations to other labour-intensive manufacturing industries in China, including the electronics and computer assembly factories. The battle against “corporate misbehaviour” in China is evidently far from over…