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Report Cites Labor Infractions by Wal-Mart Supplier in China

New York Times  |  December 12, 2007  |  Share

Wal-Mart Stores said today that it would begin an investigation into labor conditions at a Chinese factory that supplies Wal-Mart with Christmas ornaments, after the National Labor Committee released a report  asserting that Chinese teenagers at the factory worked for less than the legal minimum wage.

The ornaments in question come from the Guangzhou Huangya Gift Company, one of the largest Christmas ornament factories in China, which has 8,000 employees and is a supplier to a number of American and European companies.

The National Labor Committee - citing interviews, wage records and cellphone pictures smuggled out by teenage workers - said that the employees were being paid at less than Guangzhou's legal minimum of 55 cents per hour and are being forced to work excessive amounts of overtime. Workers were paid by a piecemeal basis, according to the committee, with some earning as little as 26 cents per hour. The wage records, which were from a 10-day period from June 21 to 30 of this year, show a median wage of 49 cents per hour. By law, the employees should have been earning a median of 68 cents per hour because of overtime regulations.

Hundreds of junior high and high school students were recruited over the summer to work at the factory, with some employees as young as 12 and 13, according to the report. A number of 16-year-old employees, recruited from the Guangdong Province Maoming Transportation Technical School about 250 miles from the factory, were angry at being forced to work shifts as long as 15 hours at below wages promised to them by their teachers. They went on strike on July 8 and filed a lawsuit against the company; as a result, they received some of their back wages.

The students said they were being forced to work seven days a week, and those who wanted to take Sundays off were sometimes fined two and a half days of wages. In addition, photos show the students working with paint, chemicals and without any protective gear, not even gloves or masks.

Richard J. Coyle, Wal-Mart's director for international corporate affairs, said in a statement today:

As soon as Wal-Mart learned about the Christmas tree ornament report, we contacted the National Labor Committee and they have not returned our call. Now that we have a copy of their report, we have launched an immediate investigation. Through our rigorous Ethical Standards program, Wal-Mart aggressively deals with any allegations of improper conditions at our suppliers' factories. Wal-Mart maintains a very strict Supplier's Code of Conduct, and employs over 200 people to monitor our suppliers and their designated factories' adherence. Our program is the largest of its kind in the world - last year, we conducted more than 16,000 audits at over 8,700 factories.

In 2005, the International Labor Rights Fund filed suit in Federal District Court in Los Angeles against Wal-Mart, asserting that workers from Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Nicaragua and Swaziland were working under conditions that violated the company's code of conduct. But a federal judge ruled in 2006 that Wal-Mart could not be held liable for the labor practices of its suppliers.

While Wal-Mart's efforts to penetrate the five boroughs of New York City have been thwarted by unions and neighborhood advocates, there are at least 20 stores in the metropolitan region.

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