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Latest Country Blogs: China
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Sleeping giant threatens rule of China's corrupt elite

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Osborne extols virtues of China while students work for nothing

While chancellor George Osborne and London mayor Boris Johnson are busy selling off UK infrastructure to Chinese capitalists, they want us to abandon what they claim are outdated attitudes about the country. The trouble is, the new reality about China is almost as bad.

Speaking on the BBC on Monday morning, the chancellor said: "I think there is a bit of a British attitude which treats China as a sweatshop on the Pearl River. One of the things I'm trying to do this week in China is to change British attitudes to China... this is a country that is right at the forefront of medicine and high-tech and computing and high-tech engineering and all of that."

China: right at the top when it comes to appalling labour conditions and intense exploitation

It’s also a country that is right at the top when it comes to appalling labour conditions and intense exploitation of the country’s workers. Beneficiaries, naturally, include the major transnational corporations like Foxconn and Apple.
 
Foxconn, the world's biggest contract electronics maker, has just admitted that unpaid student interns worked shifts at a factory in China. Last year, the corporation owned up to hiring underage interns at the same unit.

Reports suggest that upwards of 1,000 China-based Xi’an Institute of Technology students may have been forced to work on an assembly line unpaid, assembling Sony’s PlayStation 4. They were warned they wouldn’t get credits for their course unless they played ball.

The Taiwanese-based corporation makes parts for major retailers, most notably for Apple’s iPhone. Workers are often housed in dormitories and are subjected to intense pressure at work. After a spate of suicides at its Shenzhen factory, Foxconn put up nets to catch falling workers. Sick, or what?
 
And just today, the US-based China Labor Watch (CLW) accused US-headquartered toy corporation Mattel over a series of violations at supplier factories in China, including failure to pay overtime. The campaign group put the value of what it called “wage theft” at the six factories at between $8 million and $11 million annually.

“One of the most alarming findings was the various methods – many illegal – that Mattel’s factories use to reduce their workers’ due wages and benefits,” it said.“Mattel’s factories achieve cost reductions through the degradation of labour conditions ... Workers at the bottom of the system are forced to bear the brunt of this burden.”

In July, CLW published an investigative report detailing the labour violations of three factories of Pegatron Group, a major supplier to Apple.  Average weekly working hours in the three factories probed by CLW were approximately 66 hours, 67 hours, and 69 hours, respectively. Workers were forced to sign forms indicating that their overtime hours were less than the actual levels.
 
CLW executive director Li Qiang said, “Our investigations have shown that labour conditions at Pegatron factories are even worse than those at Foxconn factories. Apple has not lived up to its own standards. This will lead to Apple’s suppliers abusing labour in order to strengthen their position for receiving orders.”

Chinese workers have been fighting back against super-exploitation. Chinese private-sector wages rose 14% in 2012, following similar increases the year before. While this still leaves workers way behind average earnings in Japan, Europe and North America, the increases were still enough for the Wall Street Journal  to warn its readers that this could “hurt business profitability and export competitiveness”.

So it’s on to the next venue for super-exploitation. Countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam are seen as alternatives as global clothes retailers look beyond China. Marks and Spencer, for example, has more than tripled its staff in Vietnam over the past three years.

So chancellor Osborne, the sweatshops are simply moving countries. No doubt you will be visiting them in due course, extolling their virtues while turning a blind eye to what’s really going on in the factories. ConDem business as usual.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
15 October 2013

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