by Barbara Shaibu, NCL Public Policy Intern
Barbara Shaibu is an NCL public policy intern this summer and hails from College Park, MD. She is a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.
In South China on April 5th, 2009, a 17-year-old-worker, Liu Pan, was crushed to death by malfunctioning machinery in a stationery factory. Liu’s body was so disfigured from the accident that his parents had a hard time identifying him.
Liu had been illegally hired and working at Yiuwah Stationery Factory since age 15, below China’s legal age limit. The entertainment giant, the Walt Disney Company, finds itself on the hot seat because Yiuwah produces goods for the company.
In wake of the incident, the group China Labor Watch (CLW) investigated the conditions at the Yiuwah and alleges that systematic violations of labor rights are occurring at the factory. According to CLW’s report, not only were there underage workers, but workers—including children—were working in harsh and unsafe conditions.
According to CLW, Disney audited the factory in the past year but failed to notice several violations, including the presence of underage workers—some as young as 13. CLW alleges that in the factory untrained workers operate dangerous machinery, contracts are routinely violated, workers are forced to perform overtime, and maternity leave is often denied.
In response to the CLW’s report, Disney pledged to improve conditions in Yiuwah. A June 22nd New York Times article notes that Disney issued a statement announcing that it “had instructed its vendors and licensees to ‘cease new orders of any Disney-branded products in the Yiuwah factory’ until conditions were improved.”
The CLW accused Disney of categorically abandoning Yiuwah. However, Disney pledged to assist in making the much-needed changes to the factory. You can view CLW’s open letter to Disney at www.chinalaborwatch.org.
“We believe a victory at Yiuwah would be an important change in the way Disney does business in China,” said Li Qiang, CLW’s executive director. “It is very important to apply pressure for Disney to invest in improving conditions at [the factory] rather than canceling its orders.”
A July 30th letter suggests that Disney has listened. In the letter, Disney’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Responsibility Jennifer Anopolsky said the company is making great progress in bringing about change at Yiuwah, citing several improvements: an improved age verification program, the addition of new safety equipment, and worker safety training. Yiuwah is now also paying workers the correct minimum wage, providing vacation and rest days, and covering workers with injury insurance, according to Disney, which has also hired a company to monitor the factory’s progress.
Assuming they are implemented correctly, the National Consumers League applauds these corrections but we wonder how many other Yiuwah’s are out there. The death of Liu Pan raises many questions about working conditions elsewhere in China. And, despite a major labor law enacted a year and half ago, conditions for Chinese workers appear to be worsening nationwide.