Where Are the Workers of the World?
When consumer activists targeted the wages and working conditions associated with Nike and other famous brands, Mattel decided to act on its own, before Barbie dolls got caught in the same cross-hairs. Half of the Barbies are now made in China, where labor conditions are notorious and Mattel uses 300 subcontractors, according to the Asian Monitor Resource Center. Mattel developed a detailed industrial code for its producers, prescribing standards for everything from injury rates to the number of bathrooms per 100 workers.
The three-member Independent Monitoring Council chosen by the company to oversee compliance includes economist Murray Weidenbaum, an antiregulation conservative and well-known apologist for business practices. PricewaterhouseCoopers, the global accounting firm, was hired to audit. No one should be surprised that their first report, in November, covering three major factories in China and some others in three other nations, gave Mattel high marks. It describes the local managers as enthusiastic about correcting certain deficiencies.
Still, even Mattel's own handpicked inspectors were baffled by the payroll records at two Chinese plants--the accounting system for wages, hours worked, overtime paid. The monitoring committee admitted that it "experienced difficulty in verifying certain elements of the pay structure.... A large majority of workers...expressed a lack of understanding of their pay stubs."
The workers, likewise, seemed unfamiliar with Mattel's "Global Manufacturing Principles," though the new standards were supposedly explained to them. The council noted that when some workers responded to questions, "it appeared that these were memorized answers." Nor were workers able to say much about free expression or complaints to managers. "Most of them were either not conscious or were reluctant to talk about the freedom of association or unionization issues," the report noted.
A less charitable explanation of the wage-and-hour confusion was provided by the Asian Monitor Resource Center in a March 1999 report on what its citizen investigators found at twelve Chinese toy factories, including several where Mattel is active. "During the peak season, not a single worker can leave the workplace after eight hours' work," the center reported. "Most workers in these toy factories work ten to sixteen hours a day, six or seven days a week.... Since most toy workers are paid by piece rate, they never receive overtime pay."
Corporate codes of conduct have led to some improvements, the center noted, including on fire safety. "However," the report added, "we still found numerous blatant violations of workers' basic labor and human rights--including flagrant violations of China's own Labor Law, even though many of the factories we investigated are subcontractors for [multinationals] having codes of conduct on paper."
The Asian center, for instance, found that the Tri-S factory in Dongguan, which it identified as a Mattel and Tyco supplier, was still operating a "three in one" factory that is ostensibly illegal. Three hundred workers slept on the third floor; the second floor was full of raw materials.
The issue is not Mattel's sincerity. The question is whether Americans will allow enforcement of labor rights to be "privatized"--left to the moral judgments of individual companies-- or whether these complex matters must be codified in law as clearly stated benchmarks, so that corporate claims can be tested by independent verification and, if necessary, challenged in courts of law. Even if one accepted any individual company's good intentions, that still leaves millions of peasant workers subject to low-road practices by thousands of other companies and their contractors, responding to fierce market pressures that cut costs at human expense.
The first weapon is disclosure. One can collect countless horror stories on several continents, but the lack of reliable, comprehensive information remains a central problem. The codes of conduct, of course, further confuse the picture, since brand-name firms develop PR campaigns around them, while still refusing access to independent investigators.
In fact, until quite recently, companies would typically not even reveal where their goods were made--much less how their workers were treated. Under pressure from student activists and universities, Nike folded last October. It disclosed the locations of forty-two of its 365 factories.
Once again, national legislation should start with simple stuff--requiring firms to disclose information that enables citizens here and abroad to check out corporate behavior, and giving private citizens and organizations the legal standing to sue for damages if companies falsify their reports to the US government. Given the overbearing political influence of the multinationals, legal standing for private lawsuits is crucial.