By Jane Playdon

In May this year, two months before Disney’s Cars 2 was released in the UK, a 45-year-old factory worker in China chose to end her life by jumping from the building where she worked, reported The Guardian on Saturday. The backdrop to her suicide was the Sturdy Products workshop in Shenzhen, within which 6000 employees were busy producing toys and other merchandise for Mattel, Walmart and Disney.

The worker, Hu Nianzhen, had been allegedly “berated by the management,” according to an undercover investigation carried out by the NGO Sacom (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour). Accusations against the factory included the use of child labour, excessive overtime of up to three times the legal limit, inadequate ventilation and bribes to the workers of 50 yuan to give favourable answers during audits.

The factory is under pressure to keep up with demand. Mattel’s second quarter financial results showed a worldwide increase in gross sales of 30%, due partly to the “outstanding performance” of the Cars 2 products, said Robert A. Eckert, CEO. The Sacom reportsaid that workers in some departments are fined if they don’t meet targets, and one worker said that the “management uses a stopwatch to measure their productivity.” A project officer at Sacom, Ms Debby Chan Sze Wan, said that the investigator witnessed a supervisor yelling at an injured worker who wanted to take a rest. She said that a six-day working week is “standard”, and that overtime is forced, with workers coerced into signing a “voluntary pledge”. Workers who have refused overtime have allegedly had their targets increased or been transferred to tougher jobs. They “generally feel stressed due to the production target and punitive fines”, she said.

Sturdy Products is certified by the International Council of Toy Industries (ICTI), a regulatory body for the industry. Its process of ICTI-CARE (Caring, Awareness, Responsible, Ethical) was branded a “sham” in Sacom’s report. Sacom has investigated other companies that participate in the ICTI-CARE certification system, with similar results. “Disappointingly, Sacom has found a wide range of rights violations at ICTI-certified factories”, said Ms Debby Chan Sze Wan.

ICTI-CARE responded to Sacom’s allegations of mistreatment at Sturdy Products by saying that they had done an immediate “unannounced check audit” after the suicide, and found no evidence that the factory environment was the cause. Ms Debby Chan Sze Wan said that ICTI denied Sacom’s claims without producing proof, and accused them of sensationalism and incorrect information.

Mattel, Disney and Walmart did not respond to requests for comments on the allegations.

The death at Sturdy Products was an echo of events at Foxconn the previous year. Foxconn, a manufacturer of consumer electronics for Apple, Dell and HP, was dubbed the “suicide factory” by the media as one employee after another leapt onto the front pages, jumping to their deaths from factory buildings. Anti-suicide nets were installed at the factory dormitories in Schenzhen, where most of the deaths occurred. Sacom produced a report in October that year on subsequent conditions at the factories, which alleged excessive overtime and mistreatment of workers. A further investigative report by Sacom, dated 6th May this year, said: “occupational health and safety issues in Chengdu are alarming”. Two weeks later, an explosion at the Chengdu factory killed three people and injured fifteen.

After China introduced a comprehensive new labour law On 1 January 2008 to enhance workers’ rights, Amnesty International produced a document entitled ‘Doing business in China: the human rights challenge’.

It said: “workers are prohibited from forming or joining the labour union of their choice…and…working conditions of millions of people are still below normal standards. Underpay and overwork…are still widespread at all levels of the supply chain in China. Amnesty International has documented a large number of cases involving serious physical abuse of Chinese workers, including…corporal punishment. In some cases electric batons were used. In many Chinese factories there are severe restrictions on when and for how long employees may go to the toilet, have a conversation or take a meal break. Sanctions vary from corporal punishment to wage cuts and dismissal.”

Sacom’s findings over the years reflect those of Amnesty International. Ms Debby Chan Sze Wan said they have repeatedly found wage deductions, forced or excessive overtime and harsh management. Sacom hopes to see genuine labour unions in the future “to defend [workers’] rights”. She said that, although the toy companies always say their products are manufactured within the codes of conduct, there is no “enforcement mechanism” to ensure those codes are met. “Sacom demand [that] the toy brands raise the unit price when they place orders at [the] factories”, to ensure workers can earn a living wage and avoid excessive overtime.

The original link of the report is here.