Chinese Disney staff `exploited'

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The Independent Online
WALT DISNEY came in from the political cold yesterday asMulan finally went on show around China, ending a ban on the US studio's films that was imposed two years ago, after the pro-Dalai Lama feature Kundun.

But as the cartoon flickered on to mainland cinema screens, Disney came under fire from a new direction, with allegations from Hong Kong and British Christian organisations that workers' conditions in some Chinese factories producing Disney merchandise had broken the US company's own code of conduct.

Relations between Disney and Peking were derailed in 1996 after the release of Martin Scorsese's film Kundun, which was financed by Disney. Enticed by the potential of the Chinese market - Titanicgrossed pounds 18m in China last year - Disney has since mounted a lengthy campaign to repair the damage.

China allows only 10 foreign films a year to be shown in cinemas, but earlier this month Disney's persistence was rewarded with the go-ahead for the release of Mulan, a cartoon based on an ancient Chinese legend in which a woman disguises herself as a man to fight the invading Huns.

As the company celebrated Mulan's release, however, it faced accusations that workers in some mainland factories producing Disney goods were working excessive hours for meagre wages. Cafod, the overseas development agency of the Catholic church in England and Wales, released research by the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, which between July 1998 and February 1999 interviewed dozens of migrant workers at factories in southern China that manufactured garments and shoes for Disney. The factories are not owned by Disney.

At the Guo Nian Garment Factory, which produces children's wear for Disney, the 200 workers, mostly women, worked up to 16 hours a day, the report alleged. Employees usually worked seven days a week for monthly wages ofabout 600 yuan (pounds 45).

They had to pay a month-and-a-half's salary as a "deposit" when they joined the factory, which was not refundable if they left within a year. Such conditions break China's labour laws but are common on the mainland.

At the Sheng Li factory, which produces Mickey Mouse clothing, the researchers said the mostly female workforce toiled for 12 hours a day, six days a week, for only 500-700 yuan (pounds 38-pounds 53) a month.

At Midway Daily Products, manufacturers of clothes, shoes and dolls for Disney, accommodation was free, but researchers found one room measuring 7ft by 7ft, in which eight women lived.

Disney has a code of conduct that applies to all manufacturers of Disney merchandise. The code is wide-ranging and, according to Cafod, includes a clause that employers should, as a minimum, comply with all wage laws and regulations, including minimum wages, overtime, and piece rates. The code states that, except in extraordinary circumstances, the maximum working hours is 48 hours per week, or the local legal limit if this is lower.