The computing giant Microsoft is investigating claims that Chinese factory staff are working in sweatshop conditions to make its products.
A three-year undercover investigation by a workers' rights campaign group found that teenagers lived and worked in cramped conditions at factories in the Guangdong province of China, earning just a few dollars a day.
And while the factory owner, KYE, said that it complies with child labour laws and with Microsoft's code of conduct, the investigation was told that many of the students at the factory on so-called "work-study" programmes were in fact aged 14 or 15.
The Pittsburgh-based National Labor Committee (NLC) published photographs smuggled out of the factory, showing workers slumped asleep at factory lines during a half-hour break. It said that workers were forbidden to talk or go to the lavatory during production hours, and workers who dropped products were punished by being made to clean the bathrooms. It says a typical shift is from 7.45am to 10.55pm, before workers retire to 14-room dormitories.
Charles Kernaghan, director of the NLC, described the crowded conditions at the factory. "In one workshop measuring around 105ft by 105ft, there were nearly 1,000 workers. In the summer, temperatures can exceed 86 degrees and workers leave their shifts dripping in sweat. It is only when the foreign clients show up that management turns on the air conditioning."
The KYE factories produce up to 2,000 computer mice for Microsoft each shift, along with other products. It has been a Microsoft contractor since 2003.
"In 2009, workers report being at the factory 83 hours a week, while working 68 hours," the NLC said. They were paid 65 cents an hour, "which falls to a take-home wage of 52 cents after deductions for factory food".
Microsoft said it is "committed to the fair treatment and safety" of workers employed by its vendors. All sub-contractors have to sign up to a code of conduct with promises they will "pay living wages under humane conditions". No one under 15 can be employed under the code, and under-18s have to be kept away from hazardous work. "We are aware of the NLC report," a Microsoft spokesman said, "and we have commenced an investigation. We take these claims seriously, and we will take appropriate remedial measures in regard to any findings of vendor misconduct."