February, 01 2007 |  Download PDF |  Share

Broken Lives behind U.S. Production in China


The case of the Kaisi Metals Company

U.S. companies care more about their products than the people who make them



Charles Kernaghan

Corporations have demanded and won all sorts of enforceable laws in the global economy, backed up by sanctions, to defend their corporate trademarks and products.  Yet they object that it would be an "impediment to free trade" to extend similar legal protections to the human being who made the product.  What sense does that make?

When U.S. companies first started relocating their production to China, corporate spokespeople assured the American people that once on the ground in China, their companies would act as the best ambassadors, promoting U.S. values.  They would do the heavy lifting and by their good example would raise health and safety standards and compliance with human, women's and worker rights in factories across China.

In most cases, these promises have been false, as is graphically demonstrated in the case of the Kaisi Metals factory in Guangdong Province.  For years, U.S. companies have outsourced production of furniture parts to the Kaisi factory, while going out of their way to work with their contractor to bring the factory up to international packing specs so that their products will not be damaged in transit to the U.S.

At the same time, the U.S. companies stood by and did not say a word, as scores of young workers were injured and maimed due to dangerous working conditions.  Nor did the U.S. companies sourcing production at the Kaisi factory utter a single word to protest the seven-day, 80-hour workweeks, or the fact that workers were being paid below the legal minimum wage and cheated of their overtime premiums while making their goods.  Could it be that these companies care more about their products than the human beings in China who made them?

No doubt these companies will now thump their chests in indignation, telling the American people that they have voluntary codes of conduct and private monitoring schemes that guarantee the legal rights of any worker anywhere in the world who is making their products.  The Kaisi factory will be labeled the "one bad apple," the exception to the rule, and we will be told that we should get over it and move on.  Or, could it be that corporate monitoring is really an attempt to dress up a pig?

Unfortunately, too many U.S. companies that went to China as self-proclaimed ambassadors to promote respect for worker rights have turned into cheerleaders in the race to the bottom in the global economy.  Why raise wages in the U.S. when you can cheat the workers in China and pay them just 32 cents an hour?  Why pay health insurance or worker compensation in the U.S. when workers in China do not have it?  After all, are seven-day, 80-hour workweeks really wrong?  Why care about health and safety standards in the U.S. when injured and maimed workers in China can be cheaply disposed of and replaced?  In the global economy, who needs a union, as workers in China do not have one?

In the global economy, an injury to a worker in China is really also an injury to every worker in the United States.  Too many workers in China and in the U.S. are being exploited, and this will not end until we find a common ground to end the race to the bottom in which corporations pit American workers against workers in China based on who will accept the lowest wages, least benefits and most miserable working and living conditions.  Why should the human being in the global economy, who makes the goods we purchase, not be afforded at least the same legal protections as corporations have won for their trademarks and products?

Business as usual in the global sweatshop economy may be about to receive its first real challenge.  In January 2007, Senator Byron Dorgan, together with Senators Lindsy Graham, Sherrod Brown, Bernie Sanders, Russ Feingold and Robert Byrd as co-sponsors, introduced the "Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act," which for the first time, when passed, will hold corporations legally accountable to respect the United Nations/International Labor Organization's core internationally recognized worker rights standards, including no forced labor, no child labor, freedom of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively, and decent working conditions.  The legislation prohibits goods made under sweatshop conditions from being imported, sold or exported from the U.S.  A similar bill, which was introduced in the House last year, has 66 co-sponsors.

The American people were outraged when they learned that dogs and cats were being slaughtered in China to provide fur for collars on winter jackets being exported to the U.S.—to the Burlington Coat Factory.  The U.S. Congress was also upset and had the backbone to pass the "Dog and Cat Fur Act of 2000," which prohibits the import, sale or export from the U.S. of dog and cat fur.  Now that the American people and Congress have helped protect dogs and cats in China, will we have the courage to protect the lives of human beings in the global economy?

A good place to start would be to clean up the Kaisi factory.


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