December 11, 2007  |  Download PDF

A Wal-Mart Christmas

Brought to You By a Sweatshop in China


by Charles Kernaghan

At Wal-Mart, Christmas ornaments are cheap, and so are the lives of the young workers in China who make them.

The Guangzhou Huanya Gift company describes itself as being "among the top three Christmas ornament producers in mainland China," with "long term, friendly, collaborative relationships with industry leaders Wal-Mart..."   There are 8,000 workers in the factory.

At the Guangzhou Ornaments factory, every single labor law in China, along with internationally recognized worker rights standards, are being systematically violated on a daily basis.

Grueling Hours:  Ten to 12 to 15-hour shifts, seven days a week are the norm during the long, eight-month busy season.  Workers can go for months without a single day off.  At a minimum, workers are at the factory an average of 84 ¼ hours a week, while toiling 77 hours.  However, at least half the workers, some 4,000 people, are routinely at the factory 105 ¼ hours a week and working 95 hours, including 55 hours of overtime, which exceeds China's legal limit by 562 percent.  Any working daring to take a Sunday off will be docked 2 ½ days' wages as punishment.

Workers were pressured to sign a "voluntary" Overtime Application Form in which they "agree" to work more than three hours overtime a day, to work on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, and with no guaranteed minimum wage or overtime premium.

Cheated of their wages:  The legal minimum wage in Guangzhou, China is 55 cents an hour, but factory management respects neither the minimum wage nor the mandatory overtime premium.  Workers are paid by a piece rate, with some workers earning just 26 cents an hour, which is half the legal wage.  Wage documents smuggled out of the factory for a ten-day period (June 21-30, 2007, which included two Saturdays and one Sunday) show the workers earning a median wage of 49 cents an hour, while by law they should have been earning at least 68 cents an hour.  For working a minimum of 110 hours in the ten day period, the workers were paid just $49.29 instead of the $74.77 they were legally owed.  On average, the workers were cheated of $25.48-one third of the wages legally due them.  Only eight percent of the workers in the sample earned at or above the legal minimum wage, with 92 percent falling below that.

Management also illegally withholds one month's wages from each worker, making it almost impossible for workers to leave the factory without forfeiting that month's wages.

High School Students Blow the Whistle on Wal-Mart:  In the summer of 2007, the Guangzhou Huanya Ornaments factory hired 500 to 600 sixteen-year-old high school students, who were promised they would never be required to work more than 10 hours a day, six days a week, while earning more than 1,000 RMB ($132.63) a month.  Once in the factory, the teenagers found themselves forced to work 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for wages nowhere near what they were promised.  After a few weeks, many students were so exhausted they could barely walk.

The students had had enough and went on strike on July 8, also filing a legal suit against the company.  Student representatives went to the local labor bureau not only to denounce the grueling hours, seven days a week, for payment below the legal minimum wage, but also to inform the labor officials that several children, some as young as 12 years of age, worked in the plant.  The high school teenagers were able to quickly recognize and document gross human and worker rights violations, including child labor, at the plant, while Wal-Mart-the largest retailer in the world-was apparently unable to discover any such abuses over the course of years.

The 12 and 13-year-old workers hired during the summer were required to work the same 10, 12 and 15-hour shifts, seven days a week, as the older workers, including the all-night shifts from 5:45 p.m. until 6:30 a.m. or later the following morning.

 Workers Handling Potentially Dangerous Chemicals:  Workers in the Spray Paint department lack even the most rudimentary protective gear-going without gloves or the cheapest disposable respiratory masks-while handling potentially dangerous paints, "gold" dust, thinners and solvents.  Workers who develop serious skin rashes or sores have no choice but to leave the factory, as management will not pay medical bills or for days missed.

The Real Ornament is China's Labor Laws:  The Christmas ornament workers are in a trap.  Few workers know the labor law, and even if they do they have no idea what avenues to pursue to seek their rights.  Nor are there independent unions to help them.  Local labor bureaus are passive at best, and sometimes corrupt.  Either way, there is little aggressive monitoring of factories known to be engaging in illegal behavior.


Wal-Mart: Scrooge Masquerading as Tiny Tim

by Charles Kernaghan

Wal-Mart has hired a new advertising agency, which is being paid a fortune to convince people that it is virtuous to purchase cheap goods, glorifying that every item bought on sale should fill the shopper with emotion and holiday spirit.

Too bad that this holiday spirit only exists in the realm of advertising, as the reality behind the bargain is hardly virtuous, uplifting or pretty. It is most often downright nasty, manipulative, inhumane and even cruel. Far from kindling the holiday spirit, the conditions under which the mostly young women workers in China produce goods for Wal-Mart are dehumanizing.

This holiday season, we should stop to think of what it would be like to live without freedom of the press, without freedom of religion, without respect for human rights, without democracy, without freedom of association and the right to organize.

Over 66 percent of the goods Wal-Mart imports into the U.S. each year by ship come from China. If we stop to think about it, isn’t it odd that we have never had the chance to meet or hear from even one of the millions of workers in China producing Wal-Mart goods for export to the U.S.? This is, of course, not by chance. The truth is a reality so ugly that it must be kept hidden from sight.

It is doubly ironic and sad that it is the grueling hours, lack of rights and the pitifully low wages paid to the workers in China that allow Wal-Mart to spend some $1.9 billion a year ($5.2 million a day) in advertising, while at the same time cutting prices.

In the end, some bargains are not worth it, and may instead come back to bite the American people, as more jobs leave, wages fall, and the middle class dwindles.


Santa’s Helpers Relocated to China

High school students blow the whistle on Wal-Mart—exposing forced overtime, seven-day work weeks, payment below the legal minimum wage and even some child workers.

The “Holiday Season” at the Guangzhou Huanya factory in China lasts eight months, stretching each year from March through October (the peak production period for Christmas ornaments) and there is nothing pleasant about it. For one thing, many of the workers are young. In fact, in June and July, the factory even hired 500 to 600 sixteen-year-old high school students, who quickly went on strike and tried to sue the factory decrying the miserable conditions. The students experienced and documented forced overtime, 10 to 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, with payment below the legal minimum wage. They were able to smuggle out of the factory company pay records, which are posted every ten days on bulletin boards. The high school students also reported to the local government that several child workers—some just 12 years old—were employed at the plant.

It is interesting to note that while the high school students were quickly able to discover serious human and worker rights abuses at the Guangzhou Huanya factory, Wal-Mart—the largest retailer in the world—has apparently been unable to find any such violations over the course of many years.

Video footage smuggled out of the factory shows workers sitting on low stools and plastic crates, without backrests or cushions, surrounded by thousands of Christmas ornaments, their backs hunched as they lean over to insert the top pieces into each Christmas ornament, racing to complete one operation every three seconds. Some workers will complete 12,000 to 14,400 such operations in a day. A young woman hand paints a Christmas ornament every 39 seconds, and 93 an hour. In the spray paint department, working without gloves or masks, a young man sprays rack after rack of 32 Christmas balls each, competing between 64,000 and 76,800 ornaments a day.

For the full report, please download the PDF file (above)