Chinese manufacturer VTech accused of human rights abuses

Wired |  By Liat Clark | June, 27 2012 |  Share  | Source Article

A US non-profit organisation has published a damning report detailing a long list of human rights abuses at the Chinese factories of technology manufacturer VTech.

The Institute for Labour and Global Human Rights commissioned a business research firm to investigate VTech's Dongguan factory, where 10,000 employees reportedly earn 70p an hour, stand up for 12 to 15 hours a day, are at times beaten by a police force-like team of security staff and forced to work mandatory overtime that exceeds China's statutory limit by 237 to 273 percent.

In December 2009 a 20-year-old employee fell to his death at VTech's plant in Liaobu Town, allegedly following an altercation with a factory manager, and one worker told the research team, "If things continue to go like this, there will be more jumpers."

The story has alarming similarities to the Shenzen Foxconn iPhone factorycatastrophe, where a spate of suicides saw 17 employees take their lives in the space of five years.

According to the Institute's report, VTech controls 50 percent of sales of corded and cordless phones in North America. It has licensing agreements with AT&T and Motorola, manufactures equipment for Sony and Philips and is an exclusive supplier for Deutsche Telekom and Australia's Telstra. Its products, which also include children's electronic toys, are sold in some of the US' largest franchises, including WalMart, Target, Staples and Sears.

Telstra has already responded to the report by pulling all VTech-manufactured phones off its shelves. Motorola, in the meantime, issued a statement confirming that VTech does "manufacture on behalf of some of our trademark licensees", and that it would ask its licensees to look into it.

VTech has staunchly denied the list of abuses. It rebutted the report's candid photos of the rotten potatoes employees are served at meal times by saying "VTech's canteen provides at least 12 different dishes at affordable prices for workers", then went on to say it abides by minimum wage laws, allows workers a one hour meal break and a ten minute break every two hours and asserts that work shifts and overtime comply with the Chinese labour laws (put in place only in 2008). It also denies "cheating" employees of $12.3 million per year in benefits.

The Institute's report is a little sensationalist in tone, asking the reader to picture their daughter working 12 hour shifts before returning to what looks like a pretty dire dorm of plywood bunkbeds. "The only break your daughter will receive is during the afternoon lunch period when she gets to eat some coarse rice and visibly rotten potatoes," the report goes on to say.

However a series of photos featuring the rotten food, basic dorms and the "employee criminal record" cards speak for themselves. The latter is reportedly amended every time an employee makes a mistake. For one of these mistakes, an employee can expect to be docked 29.3 hours' wages and a day off is considered worthy of a major demerit. Those who report others' mistakes will receive monetary compensation, says the report.

Interviews with the employees portray a weary, desperate workforce that cannot see a way out. "Sometimes I want to die," one worker allegedly told the researchers. "I work like hell every day for such a dull life. I want to find a reason to live. Given that living is so tiring, seeking death might not be a silly thing."

Employees on the assembly lines are expected to fit four or five components to a circuit board every 11.25 seconds. If an employee fails to meet targets, the report says, they must work unpaid until they do.

Every year, 80 percent of employees attempt to leave, but in these cases they would have to forfeit the previous month's wages. The factory does have a union, in line with Chinese labour laws, however the employees are either unaware of it or do not trust in the system, says the report.

In a statement, the workers appealed to foreign governments to "Call on the Chinese government to guarantee freedom of association to its people and on central and local governments to also abide by the core ILO internationally-recognised worker rights standards. The government must effectively enforce the country's labor laws; renounce policies that suppress workers and prevent them from defending their rights."

Some are skeptical of the report's conclusions, however, claiming that the its portrayal of workers is inaccurate.

"If you look at the response of most factory workers now to bad conditions, it is to go out on strike or stage a protest. I think this is where I would take issue with the report," Geoff Crothall, a spokesman for Hong Kong-based rights group China Labour Bulletin, told the Register.

The report also positions itself from the start as being an advocate of US manufacturing, with its opening statement focusing largely on the fact that no mobile phones are manufactured in the US, 2.8 million American jobs were lost in 2011 and the US trade defecit with China stands at $295.5 billion (£189.4bn). It also noted that exports from China were up 23 percent on the previous year's figures.

After abuses at Foxconn were documented, Apple took action and pledged to improve conditions. Tens of thousands of additional workers were employed, improvements were made to housing and illegal overtime was wiped out. So far, the other technology giants and stockists named in the Institute for Labour and Global Human Rights report have remained silent.

Meanwhile, in the 2012 fiscal year, VTech's revenues reached £1.12 billion.