Workplace safety is perhaps the last thing in the minds of the Chinese rulers, determined to change the economic face of this once backward nation.
Human rights groups have alleged that some Chinese companies routinely shortchange their employees on wages, withhold health benefits and expose their workers to dangerous machinery and harmful chemicals, like lead, cadmium and mercury.
AdvertisementAnd so while American and European consumers worry about exposing their children to Chinese-made toys coated in lead, Chinese workers, often as young as 16, face far more serious hazards.
Guangzhou, the capital of the Guangdong Province in the southern part of China, is an outstanding example of the current trends.
A port on the Pearl River, navigable to the South China Sea, and located about 120 km northwest of Hong Kong, it is a nerve centre of the breathtaking economic changes witnessed in the country.
In 2006, its GDP exceeded US $ 76.8 billions and was ranked first among 659 Chinese cities.
But it is in this very region factory workers lose or break about 40,000 fingers on the job every year, according to a study published a few years ago by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Pushing to keep big corporations honest, labor groups regularly smuggle photographs, videos, pay stubs, shipping records and other evidence out of factories that they say violate local law and international worker standards.
In 2007, factories that supplied more than a dozen corporations, including Wal-Mart, Disney and Dell, were accused of unfair labor practices, including using child labor, forcing employees to work 16-hour days on fast-moving assembly lines, and paying workers less than minimum wage. (Minimum wage in this part of China is about 55 cents an hour.)
In recent weeks, a flood of reports detailing labor abuse have been released, at a time when China is still coping with last year's wave of product safety recalls of goods made in China, and as it tries to change workplace rules with a new labor law that took effect on Jan. 1, reports The New York Times.
Two workers interviewed outside the huge complex of the Huanya Garment Making Company said that they were forced to work long hours to meet production quotas in harsh conditions.
"I work on the plastic molding machine from 6 in the morning to 6 at night," said Xu Wenquan, a tiny, baby-faced 16-year-old whose hands were covered with blisters. Asked what had happened to his hands, he replied, the machines are "quite hot, so I've burned my hands."
His brother, Xu Wenjie, 18, said the two young men left their small village in impoverished Guizhou Province four months ago and traveled more than 500 miles to find work.
The brothers said they worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, for $120 to $200 a month, far less than they are required to be paid by law.
When government inspectors visit the factory, the young brothers are given the day off, they said.
A former employee of the same chain, when reached by telephone, gave a similar account of working conditions, saying many workers suffered from skin rashes after working with gold powders and that others were forced to sign papers "volunteering" to work overtime.
"It's quite noisy, and you stand up all day, 12 hours, and there's no air-conditioning," he said. "We get paid by the piece we make but they never told us how much. Sometimes I got $110, sometimes I got $150 a month."
The firm, a major supplier for the Wal-Mart, recruited about 500 16-year-old high school students to work seven days a week, often 15 hours a day, during peak production months for holiday merchandise.
Several students interviewed at the Guangzhou Technical School, less than two miles from Huanya, confirmed that classmates ages 16 to 18 had spent the summer working at the factory.
Some high school students later went on strike to protest the harsh conditions. The students also told labor officials that at least seven children, as young as 12 years old, were working in the factory.
"At Wal-Mart, Christmas ornaments are cheap, and so are the lives of the young workers in China who make them," a report of the US National Labor Committee said.
Many multinationals were harshly criticized in the 1990s for using suppliers that maintained sweatshop conditions. Iconic brand names, like Nike, Mattel and Gap, responded by forming corporate social responsibility operations and working with contractors to create a system of factory audits and inspections.
But then the pressure to remain competitive, corruption in the overseeing machinery and aggressive measures to hold at back inquisitive activists and journalists have all meant there is no end in sight to the misery of the exploited workers of China.
At the center of the problem is a labor system that relies on young migrant workers, who often leave small rural villages for two- or three-year stints at factories, where they hope to earn enough to return home to start families.
As long as life in the cities promises more money than in rural areas, they will brave the harsh conditions in factories in this and other Chinese cities. And as long as China outlaws independent unions and proves unable to enforce its own labor rules, there is little hope for change, it is felt.