Special to The Epoch Times

Apr 20, 2004

A Chinese worker at a factory manufacturing textiles for export, mainly to the United States, in Haikou, Hainan, China. Photo Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

The following is an eyewitness account that details questionable employment practices at foreign-invested factories in China. The author is in Mainland China and has provided his story at great risk. The article has been translated from Chinese. To protect the writer's identity, The Epoch Times is using the pen name "John Zuo."

For many years, I worked as an inspector at a foreign-invested enterprise in China. Our company's products were mostly exported to the United States. After 1990, some of the American clothing, toy and shoe retailers gradually started importing products from China. They also set up offices in China to monitor product quality. Later, they formulated quality control guidelines that stipulated strict standards for raw materials, safety testing, fitting, packing, storage and transportation.

The American buyers' strict quality control requirements have indeed played an important role in improving the quality control system and product quality of the manufacturers who accepted the orders. They also helped reduce American customers' refund rates. However, because of the increasing market competition, in order to attract more customers with low prices, the U.S. buyers continuously lowered their unit price. Therefore, to make a profit, the manufacturers who accepted their orders would use all possible means to reduce costs. Many have resorted to severe human rights violations.

The extremely poor human rights situation in China and the lack of supervision of foreign-invested enterprises from the government's labor department have prevented some of the human rights violations from being exposed and condemned. I would like to discuss the related issues and their impact on product quality.

Illegally hiring child laborers

Across China, there are rural areas where people do not have enough food and clothing. Many children are unable to attend schools and have to go to urban areas to seek work as casual laborers to support their families. In major cities in China, one can often see children wandering around and begging for food. There are typically two situations under which foreign-invested enterprises would hire child laborers. One is that factories run short of workers, because migrant workers who have gone home during the Chinese Lunar New Year do not return for various reasons or are unable to return on time. As the date of product delivery is rather tight, some foreign-invested factories might hire workers under 16. Another situation is that some children under 16 from rural areas borrow the identification cards of their older sisters or brothers to look for jobs and the factories' human resources departments hire them without careful scrutiny.

It is generally understood that children are neither physically nor mentally ready to endure hard labor. In addition, their curiosity and restlessness make it hard for children to focus on doing one thing for a long period of time. Here I would like illustrate the issue with two examples.

A Taiwanese-invested men's shoe factory, from which our company ordered products, once hired a 14-year-old boy to work on an assembly line. One day, while inspecting the product, I found many shoes had been over-glued. I also found instances where the glue was applied in the wrong places and there were gaps between the outsole and the upper part of the shoe.

In order to find out what the problem was, I went to see how the workers were performing on the assembly line. I found a young worker whose hand was shaking while holding a last to put glue on the shoes. Some of the lasts this factory used were made of aluminum and were a little heavy. This young worker did not have enough strength to hold it for a long time and therefore his hand was shaking. This caused the glue to end up on the wrong spots. When I saw this, I immediately requested the factory's manager to suspend the assembly line and rectify it. In addition, I had to reject all of the finished shoes that were flawed. Later, the young worker told me that he was only 14-years-old. He had borrowed his older brother's identification card to register to work in the factory.

Another time when I went to check on the vamp quality at the stitching plant of the factory, I found several bags of vamps very badly sewn. Neither the stitches nor the margins met the standard requirements. After further checking, I found a broken needle on a vamp. If the needle was not found and left on the vamp, it would hurt the customer who bought the shoes. That was quite serious. Upon investigation, I found the worker, a young girl, who had sewn the vamps according to the series number on the bags. Under my patient questioning, she told me that she was only 15-years-old. With tears in her eyes, she said that she wanted to go home and continue her studies in school. Unfortunately, her family was unable to afford her and she had to leave home to make a living. She often thought about her school life and hence was unable to focus on what she was doing. The vamps she sewed were often unsatisfactory. I asked the factory leader to properly handle the girl's case and re-inspected all of the vamps with metal detectors to see if there were broken needles left on them.

These examples illustrate how illegally hiring underage workers could affect product quality and possibly endanger customers. Not hiring child laborers would protect children's legal rights and ensure better product quality.

Long-term overtime

A human is not a machine. If a person continues to work intensively for a long period of time without getting necessary rest, the quality of the products he makes would be in question. I found many quality problems were caused by workers putting in more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week, over long periods of time. Even during off-peak periods, some factories would still have their employees work overtime, except for Sunday nights.

There are a number of reasons for this, including: manufacturers disregard their capabilities and accept excess orders; certain styles of products have great market demand and buyers reorder them; buyers do not consider manufacturers' production capability when they made the orders; and delivery dates are set too urgently.

Take shoe factories as an example. Usually, workers do not want to work overtime. Therefore, in order to rush through their assigned daily tasks and go home as early as possible, some workers on the assembly line would secretly speed up the conveyor belt. This leaves inadequate time for the shoes to be heated and finalized. The bulk-made shoes often have severe vamp wrinkles and look very different from the samples. In addition, speeding up the conveyor belt also means soles are adhered before the glue dries. Thus the shoes are not durable and customers often request refunds.

Working extended hours over long periods of time would not only fatigue the workers, making them unable to focus on their job and hence affect the product quality, but it would also cause accidents and possibly injure workers.

I remember a fire that occurred in one shoe factory. Workers were so tired from long periods of overtime that they fell asleep while working on the assembly line. The drying machine on the conveyor belt overheated the Toluene solution which was used for cleaning the shoes and caused a fire.

In the cutting plant of another shoe factory, a worker was so tired from working overtime for a long period of time that he absent-mindedly operated the machine and had his hand cut off. There are many problems caused by long-term overtime too many to enumerate here one-by-one. In my experience, the quality of products made during periods of long-term overtime is reduced more than 10% than under normal circumstances. The product rejection rate therefore increases more than 10% and as the refund rate increases, chances of reorder are reduced.

Products made by prisoners

Because I practice Falun Gong, I have been suffering from the persecution. As a consequence, I lost my job and have been deprived of my freedom of belief. I was even arrested and imprisoned in Beijing Prison, where I witnessed guards forcing prisoners to package disposable wooden chopsticks.

Every prisoner had to finish a certain quota. If they are unable to finish their assigned quota, the guards or the head of each cell would beat them up. Each pair of chopsticks is packaged in a thin sheet of paper and then bundles of the packaged chopsticks are put in specially made cartons. I saw for myself the main mark of those cartons indicating that the shipping address was Tokyo, Japan.

When the prisoners packaged the chopsticks, they piled them directly on the ground. Then they used their bare hands to package each pair in a sheet of paper imprinted with the words, "disinfected at a high temperature." In fact, the chopsticks were not sanitary at all. Prisoners who suffered from infective hepatitis or sexually transmitted diseases had to do the work. They were not allowed to wash their hands before working. A cell usually held about 30 inmates. The chopsticks were packed on the grounds or beds. Prisoners had to work long hours each day. They got up at 6:30 a.m. After having a small bowl of hominy and a steamed corn bun, they started working. They had less than 10 minutes for lunch and then had to continue their work. Dinner was the same. They had to work until 9:00 p.m. or even later. They had to work 14 hours a day.

In the southern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, there are many foreign-invested clothing, shoe and toy factories. In busy seasons, some factories often assign hand labor or sewing jobs to jails, labor camps, juvenile reformatories and detention centers. Some foreign-invested manufacturers do not necessarily communicate with jails directly. Instead, they provide the prepared parts of garments or vamp fittings and subcontract the sewing to private tailors. Those tailors only keep a small part of the job, and further subcontract the rest to jails.

This is done because prisoners are not paid for their labor and jails' water and power usage are covered by the government. Products made in jails are not taxed. Therefore, jails can provide the lowest cost to get the production done. In order to lower the costs, some exporters, blinded by gain, do not hesitate to cheat buyers and subcontract most of the sewing and other hand labor to prisons and other detention centers.

Due to the lack of oversight from related merchants, the quality of the products made by prisoners is extremely bad. Many prisoners are suffering from various kinds of infectious diseases, and they generally don't have good sanitation habits. Some prisoners do not have the chance to shower for a long period of time and their bodies stink. I saw for myself how some prisoners continue to process clothing, toys or vamps after going to the restroom and not washing their hands. Some prisoners are beaten by jail guards and in order to vent their discontent, they spit onto the clothing and even curse that whoever wears the clothes would have bad luck.

As early as eight years ago, when I was working in a trade company, I heard that some foreign-invested manufacturers secretly subcontracted parts of the fittings of certain products to jails for processing. At that time, I requested inspectors in my office to spend two hours a day checking on the in-and-out amount of the raw materials and the semi-manufactured goods so as to ensure none of the fittings were subcontracted. I also gave firm warnings to the manufacturers that we would cancel the orders if a subcontract was found and the manufacturers would be responsible for all consequences.

From the above cases, I hope that foreign investors would thoroughly investigate all possible loopholes of the quality of the exported products made in China. I believe that any retailers, merchants or manufacturers with conscience would be definitely intolerant if the products they sell are made by prison or child labor. That is not only an issue of human rights but is also to be responsible to their customers and their own reputations.