Every Day Low Prices ... and Wages

By Richard Wilson

"Sometimes, we work all night and we have to work our shift as usual the next day. You have to work overtime. If you don't, it's regarded as skiving off, and a fine gets deducted from our wages. There's far too much overtime, and many of us really don't want to do it. I know some women who've fainted because they were so exhausted." And yet, according to this woman and others interviewed by the China Labour Bulletin (a watchdog group pushing to improve the lot of Chinese workers), the ones who faint are lucky. Some, like Yang Xixiang, have died from overwork. Xixiang had worked straight for 21 hours. Found in her dormitory room unconscious, she was declared dead at the hospital. The manager at first refused to compensate the family until a strike of co-workers forced his hand.

Why do these women put up with such horrible hours? They are an underclass hoping to make enough money to send home to a family living in rural poverty. Wages are low in China, but these women—typically migrants from rural areas aged 16 to 30—make low wages even by Chinese standards. And even if a woman decides to give up, to go back to her family and rural poverty, she often can't: Several months' wages are often held in arrears to prevent women from leaving.

These young women make up the large majority of the workers in the supplier factories for all those famous American brands that are no longer made in America. They assemble, sew, glue, cut, and bend products for export—everything from jeans to iPods, boots to stereo systems, toys to uniforms, and computers to wireless phones.

A study in Dongguan by the China Labour Bulletin found that the typical work schedule is 12 to 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, with one day off a month. When there is a rush to get an order out, even more hours are required. Verité, a respected monitoring organization with long experience in China, did a special study devoted to excessive overtime. It looked at 142 Chinese supplier factories largely in garment, shoe, and knitting industries. Of the 142, over 93 percent had overtime exceeding the legal limit of 60 hours overtime per month—and 33 percent had more than 100 hours per month.

Never mind the fact that this kind of schedule is not allowed under China's laws or the various "codes" or "standards" set for these supplier factories by American corporations. Such laws and standards seem to exist for PR purposes, not to protect the workers. Wal-Mart has standards—and even conducts inspections. But it announces the vast majority of its inspections in advance, giving the factory owners time to "clean up" their records and coach employees on how to answer questions.

When two reporters from the Washington Post visited the Shenzhen Baoan Fenda Industrial Company, they watched "women hunch over worktables, many hands bandaged and few covered with gloves, pressing transistors into circuit boards … [amid] clattering machinery … and screaming electric saws." After their observation of the workers, the reporters turned to the factory's engineer for his story. It turned out that the company had an order from Wal-Mart for 350,000 stereos. He explained, "the profit is really small … we constantly cut costs to satisfy Wal-Mart" ("Chinese Workers Pay for Wal-Mart's Low Prices," Washington Post, February 8, 2004, p. A1).


Richard Wilson is a consultant for the Foundation for Democratic Education. Formerly, he was director of Organizing and Field Services for the AFL-CIO and director of Central and Eastern European Affairs for the Free Trade Union Institute. He is currently writing a book about Wal-Mart, China, and the legacy of China's former leader Deng Xiaoping. This article is written in memory of the Foundation's former chairman and director, Penn Kemble.

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