Labor rights groups say worker conditions in China are still miserable

The groups call on U.S. officials to put pressure on U.S. companies and on the government of China

Working conditions at some electronics manufacturing factories in China continue to be terrible, with some employees beaten by guards, some docked pay for missing production targets and many working hours beyond legal overtime limits, Chinese and labor activists told U.S. lawmakers.

Audits of Chinese factories by the U.S. companies hiring them to make products are often "corrupt," with auditors taking bribes to ignore problems, Li Qiang, executive director of China Labor Watch, told the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China on Tuesday. The audit system used by many U.S. companies to check on working conditions in Chinese factories is "severely flawed," he said.

Factories used by Hong Kong-based cordless phone maker VTech Holdings require workers to work 12- to 15-hour shifts and stand all day, said Charles Kernaghan, executive director for the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. Employees on the assembly line are required to add 1,600 pieces to circuit boards in an hour, and live in filthy and crowded dormitories, Kernaghan told the committee. Workers who don't meet production goals work without pay until they can, he said.

"The production line never stops," Kernaghan said. "The pace is relentless, furious, mind-numbing, exhausting."

VTech disputed recent reports from the institute. The company is considering legal action against Kernaghan's group, VTech said in a statement.

"VTech is a responsible and caring employer wherever it has operations, and this includes mainland China," the company said. "The group and its subsidiaries abide strictly by the legal requirements relating to employment in all jurisdictions where it operates, including mainland China."

Similar conditions exist in many factories used by Apple, despite promises that Apple is correcting problems, Li told the committee. Factories used by several other U.S. hardware firms also have bad conditions, he said. An Apple representative didn't immediately respond to a request for comments.

The profits of Apple in one year would pay the wages of the 300,000 employees of Foxconn, a Chinese supplier for Apple, for 110 years, Li said. He called on the committee and U.S. government to put pressure on U.S. companies to help fix worker conditions.

Committee members and other witnesses also called on the U.S. government to put pressure on the Chinese government to better protect workers. While the U.S. government took a hard line against the Communist Party in the old Soviet Union and continues to take a hard line against the Communist Party in Cuba, it works with the Communist leaders in China, said Harry Wu, executive director of the Laogai Research Foundation, a human rights group focused on China.

Wu asked committee members if the U.S. government really wants to improve worker rights in China. "I hope so, I don't think so," he said.

Representatives of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not return a message seeking comment on the hearing.

When U.S. officials meet with their Chinese counterparts, worker rights is not a priority issue, said Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff for giant trade union the AFL-CIO. U.S. government leaders need to press the Chinese to allow workers to organize their own unions, she said. The U.S. can put pressure on China by threatening to close off its market to Chinese goods, she said.

Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, promised to push President Barack Obama's administration to stress worker rights in talks with China. "Workers rights are systematically violated, and are among the many human rights abused by the Chinese government at all levels," he said. "While touting itself as an economic superpower, [the Chinese continue] to violate worker rights with impunity."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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