A report issued by human rights activists reveals that young migrant workers are labouring under sweatshop conditions for IBM, Microsoft, HP and Dell in a factory in China. Twelve hours a day, seven days a week, the people who put your keyboard keys into place are paid 60 euro cents an hour to do it. And they're not even allowed to raise their heads or go to the toilet...
Taiwanese-owned Meitai factory in Dongguan City, Guangdong province (southeast), employs two thousand young workers, 75% of them women, to produce computer equipment including keyboards and printer cases for Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Lenovo, Microsoft and IBM (as we go to press IBM and Dell are yet to confirm this). The damning research, published online by the National Labor Committee, was carried out between June and September of 2008, and updated mid January 2009. When we contacted the companies cited in the report, only Microsoft and HP replied to say that they had been made aware of the report. Both gave similar statements about their commitment to the "fair treatment and safety" of workers contracted to produce their software.
"They’re not even allowed to raise their heads or put their hands in their pockets"
Charles Kernaghan is one of the National Labor Committee members who worked on the report.
The young workers sit on hard wooden stools twelve hours a day, seven days a week as 500 computer keyboards an hour move down the assembly line, or one every 7.2 seconds.
They're allowed just 1.1 seconds to snap each key into place, repeating the same operation 3,250 times an hour, 35,750 times a day, 250,250 times a week and over one million times a month.
All overtime is mandatory, with 12 hour shifts seven days a week and an average of two days off a month. A worker daring to take a Sunday off - which is supposedly their weekly holiday - will be docked 2 ½ days' wages. Including unpaid overtime, workers are at the factory on average 81 hours a week, which exceeds China's legal overtime limit by 318 percent! A worker toiling 75 hours a week will earn a take-home wage of $57.19 [€45], or 76 cents [60 euro cents] an hour including overtime and bonuses.
In mid-2008, the Meitai factory was advertising for workers with a huge want ad posted outside the factory: "Meitai Company seeks large numbers of female workers ages 18-35 for 1200-1500 RMB [€137 - €171] a month" [not including overtime].
Other factories in the area have similar working conditions, but what's so shocking about this one, is the restraints on liberty. Workers are prohibited from talking, listening to music, going to the toilet on shift. They're not even allowed to raise their heads or put their hands in their pockets. They're fined for being one minute late or for failing to trim their fingernails, as this could impede their work. They're searched on the way in and out of the factory, and those who hand out flyers or discuss factory conditions with outsiders are fired. When they leave a room, they stand up together and walk out in single file.
Meitai factory's 'Factory Regulations and Discipline':
'...idle chat...is forbidden while on a shift.'
'Employees shall maintain the factory image... Employees shall dress in clean and appropriate clothes... not post flyers in the company, should not walk on green areas or plants...'.
One worker summed up the general feeling in the factory: 'I feel like I am serving a prison sentence.'
Ten to twelve workers share each crowded dorm room, sleeping on narrow metal bunk beds that line the walls. They drape old sheets over their cubicle openings for privacy. Workers are locked in the factory compound four days a week and are prohibited from even taking a walk.
Names of workers fined for not cleaning their dorms are displayed on a whiteboard.
The bathroom with a squat toilet. In the winter, workers have to walk down several flights of stairs to fetch hot water in a small plastic bucket, which they carry back to their rooms to take a sponge bath.
To symbolize their ‘improving lives' the workers are served a special treat on Fridays - a small chicken leg and foot.
For breakfast, they are given watery rice gruel.
Workers are only given 15 minutes to eat lunch.
The other factories in the area have given their staff a week off for New Year (which is equal in importance to Thanksgiving and Christmas combined for North Americans). But the Meitai factory has only given three days off, which makes it impossible for the staff to get home and back. They're all migrant workers. I think the factory fears that if workers leave for a home with a month's wages, they'll never come back.
What's also shocking is that this factory deals with such big names. If there's one factory these companies should pay any attention to, then it's this one. While Microsoft is fighting to protect its trademark in China, it cares very little about any laws that might protect the workers who actually make the software. Dell, HP and IBM have all promised to do something. But all they'll do is put in place ‘monitors' in the factory. These workers are terrified; they won't dare tell them anything. It's not because they're in love with the Chinese people that these companies are here; it's because people in China can be forced to work for nothing, and they're not going to fight against that. Meanwhile, China is sacrificing these young workers to build a middle class which they themselves will never see.
To get hold of this information we had people inside the factory, but we can't openly discuss our research methods. We did the interviews with workers off campus. Some of them do come to human rights and health and safety organisations on their day off. But they're very cautious. The organisations have to keep moving around so they're not tracked by the factories. And most of the workers have never even heard the word ‘union' - they think it's a breakfast meeting. The workers have no healthcare to speak of. They're hanging by a shoestring. Of course they're hoping to move on to a better job. But with the financial crisis, it will be even harder to find another job now. Twenty million migrant workers have just been made redundant in China. It's a difficult, miserable situation."