From International Herald Tribune:
An unhappy toy story: Unrest in China
By Donald Greenlees and David Lague
International Herald Tribune
SATURDAY, JULY 29, 2006-->Published: July 28, 2006
HONG KONG Four major American companies, including Walt Disney and McDonald's, ordered an investigation Friday into allegations that a riot at a big toy supplier in the Chinese city of Dongguan had been sparked by poor wages and living conditions for 11,000 factory workers, executives at the companies confirmed.
Labor rights activists claim that pent-up frustrations over working conditions at the factory, which supplies plastic toys to several iconic American brands, including Disney, McDonald's, Mattel and Hasbro, erupted last Saturday and Sunday.
At the height of the protest, more than 1,000 workers at the factory clashed with security guards and police officers, resulting in many injuries, according to China Labor Watch, a New York-based worker rights group. It said that the police had sent riot vehicles to control the situation and that dozens of workers had been arrested.
In a statement on its Web site, China Labor Watch said that it had conducted an investigation of the factory that found that workers were typically required to work 11 hours a day, six days a week, with total overtime of up to 70 hours a month. Chinese law requires that workers not be made to work more than 40 hours a week and do no more than 36 hours of overtime a month, according to the advocacy group.
It also said that the factory's work force was paid 574 yuan, or $72, a month, "the exact minimum wage standard in Dongguan."
"Chinese workers live at the bottom of the society," Li Qiang, executive director of China Labor Watch, said in the statement. "They have no means to voice their needs or to protect their lawful rights. Workers will only stand up and fight when their situation is so miserable that they do not have any other options."
Merton, the company that owns the factory where the riot was said to have occurred, declined to comment on the allegations that working conditions and wages were inadequate. Contacted by telephone in Hong Kong, an employee of the company, who declined to give his name, said that the issue was "under investigation."
But an executive of Creata Promotions, a company that gets toys from Merton for the American retailers, said that the disturbance at the factory in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, was the result of "one disgruntled employee who was terminated."
"Apparently, that termination led to some of the employee's friends causing acts of vandalism at the plant, which required local police to respond," said Michael Lillioja, executive director of Creata.
He said that some arrests had been made. The police in Dongguan confirmed Friday that there had been an incident at the factory but said that they were unable to give further details.
Lillioja denied the allegations of China Labor Watch that there was a record of poor working conditions and salaries at the factory. He described the factory as "one of the best toy factories in the region."
Other labor rights activists said that there was increasing evidence that workers were beginning to resent the long hours, low pay and poor working environments in some Guangdong factories, the engine of China's booming export industry. This is making it difficult for some factories to recruit workers, leading to labor shortages in some areas.
"There are more signs of militancy," said Robin Munro, research director of the Hong Kong-based labor rights watchdog China Labor Bulletin, which is not affiliated with China Labor Watch.
"Many migrant workers are voting with their feet," Munro said. "They are heading to other provinces where conditions are better and they can sometimes make more money."
David Lewis, managing director of Mattel Asia Pacific Sourcing, which produces the Barbie Doll and Hot Wheels toy lines, said that investigators working for the four U.S. companies arrived at the factory in Guangdong on Friday to interview company executives and workers and uncover the cause of the riot.
"Mattel obviously takes these issues very seriously and is working with our partners here - McDonald's, Hasbro and Disney," said Lewis, who is based in Hong Kong. "We have people right now at the site investigating what is going on. We will work to resolve this in a timely manner. Our priority is that the workers are safe and have good working conditions."
McDonald's and Disney representatives in Hong Kong also expressed concern Friday over the allegations and pointed to the existence of long-established codes of conduct governing working conditions that suppliers are required to follow. All the companies said that labor audits had been carried out periodically to ensure that suppliers were meeting minimum labor standards, including compliance with local laws, fair terms of employment and safe and clean working environments.
Millions of production workers from all over China have found jobs in the factories of Guangdong Province, which borders Hong Kong, in the hope of escaping the poverty of the country's remote inland regions.
This huge pool of low-cost labor has allowed manufacturers to slash production costs.
Labor activists have run longstanding campaigns over what they have alleged are sweatshop conditions in many of these factories, including suppliers to famous Western retail brands.
The emergence of militant labor in China's industrial heartland is looming as a fresh challenge for the Chinese authorities. The ruling Communist Party is already under pressure from widespread popular unrest, mainly over corruption, land seizures and industrial pollution.
Official figures show that there were 87,000 disturbances of public order in 2005 alone.
David Lague reported from Beijing.