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U.S. ignores abuse of Chinese workers

When Christmas shoppers peek at the "Made In China" labels on toys, Mattel wants them to buy with a clear conscience. Like the way members of the House and Senate turn a blind eye to reports of religious oppression and worker abuse in the country of origin.

When I asked Fisher-Price Toys, owned by Mattel, about a recent riot at a Chinese plant where Mattel toys are made, Fisher-Price shunted that and other questions to Mattel headquarters.

Mattel responded with an e-mail listing a number of purportedly do-good organizations it joined or helped found in countries like China.

Included in the list are Business for Social Responsibility, Governance Metrics International, FTSE4Good and Domini 400 Socially Responsible Investment.

The announced goals of these corporate organizations are to create a workers' paradise. So shining bright, perhaps, that many unemployed American factory workers might wish to emigrate to Shanghai. Referring to FTSE4Good, Mattel maintained it is "listed on two of the best respected Socially Responsible Investment indices, which only include companies that meet their stringent and specific corporate responsibility standards."

The trouble is that, as noble as these goals sound, it is impossible for any independent monitor to learn about working conditions unless there is a rumble at the workplace. Factories in China are run or licensed by the Communist state, with political minders everywhere. Workers who talk too freely with foreigners wind up in jail, or worse.

"Mattel is better than some other companies there, but their promises of corporate responsibility cannot be enforced to the extent [Mattel] says they are," said Jane Li, a spokeswoman for China Trade Watch, a worker advocacy group based in New York City. China Trade Watch reported on the riot in July at the factory making toys for Mattel in Dongguan, a city near Hong Kong. Disney, McDonald's and Hasbro also buy toys from the plant.

More than 1,000 workers clashed with "security guards and police officers," the report said, resulting in injuries. Police emerging from riot trucks arrested dozens of workers.

China Labor Watch said the workers are forced to labor 11 hours a day, six days a week, with "total overtime of up to 70 hours a month." Chinese "law" says employees work a 40-hour week, with overtime limited to 36 hours a month. Workers at the plant, irrespective of reality, get 574 yuan or $72 a month.

Subsistence wages have fueled a staggering increase in Chinese toy imports, along with China's continued tricks to undervalue its currency.

Alan Tonelson of the private U.S. Business and Industry Council says from 1997 to 2005, U.S. imports of toys and games from China rose from $4.011 billion to $10.133 billion.

In 1997, Chinese imports were 50.68 percent of the U.S. market. In 2005, they comprised 76.31 percent of the U.S. market. No 2006 data is available, Tonelson said.

The AFL-CIO last year asked the Bush White House to investigate repressive Chinese labor practices. That request was summarily rejected.

A recent House Ethics Committee report reflected on the "willful ignorance" of a former member's come-ons to male pages. In a holiday mood two weeks ago, Congress maintained its own "willful ignorance" of the flight of U.S. factory jobs when it approved favorable trade relations with Communist Vietnam.

And a Christmas season report from China informs that local police in Shanghai raided a Christian house church on Dec. 9, arresting one of its leaders. This week a Chinese court will decide whether to release eight Christians arrested four months ago for resisting authorities who demolished their church near Hangzhou City.

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com

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