Happy meals, children and exploitation

We eat crap because it is cheap, and “taste good”, we make our children to eat crap, because it is cheap, they give them toys and it “taste good”, somewhere . . . someone . . .along the line, must live a crap life . . . here it is.

Anger explodes at ”Happy Meals” toy factory

Published on 01/08/06 at 15:43:54 CET by chinaworker.org The southern Chinese city of Dongguan has witnessed yet another explosive workers’ protest against long hours, low pay and slave labour conditions.

Vincent Kolo, chinaworker.info

More than 1,000 workers staged an angry protest on 22-23 July at the Hengli factory, owned by Hong Kong-based Merton Company, a major supplier of plastic toys to US and Canadian transnationals like McDonald’s, Disney, Mattel and Hasbro. The protest over low wages, lack of public holidays and poor living conditions began in the workers’ dormitories on Saturday night 22 July. It then developed into a “self-organised labour riot” that stretched into Sunday, according to US-based campaign group, China Labor Watch. Pitched battles ensued with company security guards and, later, with more than 100 regular local policemen and those from the riot squads. Dozens of workers were reportedly arrested and many injured. According to an anonymous report posted at Tianya Club, an internet forum, a violent clash between workers and security guards spilled out of two dormitories on the night of 22 July. Workers opened fire hydrants to push back the guards, cars were overturned and computers were smashed until the riot police finally took control of the factory.

Inhuman conditions

Workers at Merton’s factories in China often work 11 hours a day, 6 days a week, with up to 70 hours a month in overtime on top of that, in clear violation of Chinese labour laws, which limit overtime to 36 hours a month. Workers at the plant are paid around $71 a month, the minimum wage in Dongguan, but pay a quarter of this to the company for the use of sleeping accomodation and meals. The company deducts wages if workers refuse to work overtime and does not pay workers for taking national holidays, vacation days or sick leave, according to China Labor Watch. Overtime is not paid at the rate of 1.5 times the regular rate as required by the law.

The outbreak of serious unrest at the Hengli factory, employing a total of 10,000 workers, is a major embarassment to transnationals like McDonald’s, which try hard to avoid bad publicity arising from the inhuman factory conditions which are common in China and explain these companies’ surging profits. According to workers at the factory, around half its production goes to McDonald’s. They are used by the company to lure children into a lifetime of unhealthy eating habits by giving away collectible toys with its ’Happy Meal’ childrens’ menu.

“We need to get more of the facts,” was the initial comment from Lisa Howard, director of corporate communications for McDonald’s, who confirmed the company buys toys from the Hengli factory. “We want a full investigation,” she told the New York Times.

Employee ”terminated”

Merton, and its US buyer Creata Promotions, launched their own propaganda campaign in an attempt to limit the political fall-out from the incident and deny that it was connected to poor working conditions. Michael Lillioja, executive director of Creata, used colourful Shwartzeneggian language to explain that the Hengli protest arose because of a “disgruntled employee who was terminated.”

Clearly, however, the company has more than one ”disgruntled employee” to contend with. In fact, this is not the first time that Merton Company has surfaced in connection with shady working practises. A 2001 report by China Labor Watch revealed that ”Workers work 12.5 hours per day, spend 16.5 hours in the factory, and have to work all night during delivery rush.”

Donguan, an industrial city of 2 million inhabitants in the Pearl River Delta – China’s export hub – is no stranger to workers’ protests, demonstrations and strikes. There have been countless such protests in recent years as the mostly migrant workforce begins to flex its muscles, learn its rights and hit back at savage exploitation. A similar dispute erupted at factories in Dongguan owned by the Stella shoe company in mid 2004. This resulted in ten workers – some only sixteen years’ old – being jailed for up to three-and-a-half years. An international campaign of pressure led to the release of all ten workers. Similar action may now be needed in support of the Merton workers. Police video film may be used to identify alleged ”ringleaders” who may receive harsh prison terms as a deterrent to others. These workers must be defended by socialists and labour activists everywhere. While any damage to property is regrettable it is also understandable, given the barriers placed in the way of Chinese workers to systematically prevent them from forming free trade unions or any legal channels to redress their grievances.

The responsibility for any violence rests squarely on the shoulders of Merton Company and its transnational partners, who connive in subjecting workers to such inhuman conditions.

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