02/02/2007, 00.00
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Western firms pay private inspectors to safeguard workers

Salaries less than the minimum wage, unpaid overtime, lack of adequate safety measures: these abuses are part and parcel of the exploitation of labour in Chinese firms sub-contracted by western multi-nationals, which state inspectors do not put a stop to.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The systematic exploitation of migrant labour – salaries less than the minimum wage, unpaid overtime, lack of adequate safety measures – has led to the creation of a new profession: private inspectors charged by western firms to check out work conditions in sub-contracting Chinese firms.

The low cost of the work force in China contributes to attracting foreign investment. Shanghai-based American architect Ben Wood said the construction boom in China’s cities would be impossible without cheap labour that allowed skyscrapers to be built for about 20% of what they would cost in the United States. "An American bricklayer makes about an hour, and in China the rate is less than a day,” he said.

Western firms fear bad publicity that could arise from the exploitation of workers. The memory of scandals like a 1993 fire at western toy firm in Thailand is still vivid; 188 workers died because of a lack of respect for safety regulations. Since the 1990s, pressure groups in the United States have been urging companies like Nike and Wal-Mart to improve working conditions at subcontracting factories. So these companies are dispatching their own inspectors to carry out surprise checks.

One such private inspector, Samuel Wong, said factories in China have learnt to cover up violations against employees. Some use sophisticated software to produce fictitious work logs. Others “teach” their employees how to respond to questions that inspectors are likely to ask, for example, denying that they work Sundays or overtime.

Daniel Viederman is executive director of Verité, a company hired by Apple to investigate allegations made last August of poor working conditions at the factory in China where some iPods are made. He said that in two-thirds of checks carried out last year, workers had put in more hours than the stipulated limit and had not been properly paid for overtime work in 68% of cases.

Chinese labour law stipulates that a working week is 40 hours, after which overtime must be paid until a total of 66 hours. Workers are entitled to at least one day off a week. But according to official sources, legal cases concerning labour disputes increased by 20% in 2005. And 10% of workers said they never signed a contract while 45% claimed they were forced to work overtime. "China has very good labour laws, very worker friendly," said Steve Feniger, a managing director of SSPartners, a trading company, who has spent nearly 30 years in China. "The problem is that nobody implements them."

According to official statistics, the Ministry of Labour and Social Security employs 20,000 labour inspectors. The ministry says it audited 1.2 million business units last year and handled 250,000 cases of employee complaints, including repayment of back wages to 8.4 million workers.

But Apo Leung, executive director of the Asia Monitor Resource Center, a NGO that inspects factories across the continent, says local government officials consider migrants as “second-class citizens”. In some firms, they are even fined if they go to the washroom too often, if they talk too much or if they leave the light on when they leave the room.

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