The shiny stainless steel kitchenware adorning our kitchens comes from some of China’s dirtiest factories, according to a new report by labor watchdogs.
The New York-based advocacy group China Labor Watch sent researchers to five factories in southern China that make frying pans and other cookware for major Western brands such as Walmart, IKEA, and Cuisinart and found gleaming anodized pots being burnished by workers blanketed with “metallic dust.” These workers are subjected to exploitative piece-work pay scales, denied social insurance, and exposed to toxic chemicals. According to CLW’s report, published with the advocacy group Solidar Suisse and based on interviews and undercover investigations, “Safety protections were typically inadequate.” Sometimes “gloves or protective masks were provided only prior to inspections,” and emergency exits were sometimes locked or blocked. Labor- and safety-inspection processes were marred by bribery or document fraud. At two factories, documentation of safety training was deliberately falsified.
At the Ri Xing factory, according to the investigators, workers were paid pennies per pot produced, polished, or packaged: about six to 14 cents per unit, awarded “strictly according to their production amount.” A worker can pull in about $400 per month, with no minimum or guaranteed base wage. Workers were subjected to erratic shifts, packed in four-hour stints that ranged over the course of a day, generally putting in eight hours, plus two or three hours overtime. During peak seasons, they could work from 26 to up to 30 days per month.
Inside the workshop, workers in the hardware production, polishing, and welding operations were seen without gloves, masks, or eye protection. According to researchers, “The dust on the floor is so thick that workers must sometimes use water to wash it away. The polishing work stations are not regularly cleaned and have as a result accumulated a thick layer of dust.”
Ri Xing workers described a climate of exploitation and constant solicitation of personal favors by management; they are required to butter up their bosses by treating them to meals and drinks to maintain good relations. Workers were reportedly paid off for giving the “correct” answers to factory inspectors, and penalized or fired for “incorrect” answers.
The Guangdong Three A Stainless Steel factory, which manufactures products under various Western labels, did not even give workers the weekends off, and allowed unpaid leave time only with management’s permission. Most positions were paid on a piece rate; some worked irregular hours depending on workload, earning about $320 to $400 per month. When asked about their medical care, workers reported not knowing that they were entitled to occupational injury insurance. Though the spartan cement workshops was caked in “black dust,” workers did not don protective masks regularly, generally only during a factory inspection, despite a notice on the wall warning that masks were required.