Sweatshop controversy tarnishes Disney's big night

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The Independent Online
Hercules, Disney's latest animated film, opened in London last night. Glenda Cooper, Social Affairs Correspondent, contrasts the glittering premiere with the wage of pounds 2 a day paid to Haitian workers who make Disney products.

The charity World Development Movement (WDM) yesterday accused Disney - symbol of all-American wholesomeness - for making huge profits in the United Kingdom and the United States while buying from sweatshops in places such as Haiti.

Disney spent pounds 22m marketing Hercules in the US, the charity says. Women sewing Disney T-shirts are being paid 17p an hour while Disney's chief executive, Michael Eisner, earns pounds 6,250. To raise the daily wage from pounds 1.35 to pounds 2.81 as the workers wish would cost Disney just 4 per cent of the money already taken from Hercules.

Disney, however, says there is another side to the story: the company complies with all the applicable laws. And in a country where 80 per cent of the population are unemployed, jobs are few and hard to come by.

"Companies moving out - that is definitely not what the workers want," said Charles Arthur, of the Haiti Support Group. "We wish they would send more orders. But they want to have their rights to a union respected."

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world. The minimum daily wage has been set at 36 gourdes (pounds 1.35) since 1995 but inflation is running at 117 per cent per cent. Factory workers often share a bag of charcoal costing 20 gourdes (75p) because they cannot afford to buy it themselves. Food can take another half to one-third of the daily wage and even daily transport fares take out 1.50-2.50 gourdes for a single journey.

More than half the daily wage is spent on rent and women paid on a Friday often do not have any money left to buy food for their children by Sunday, so they are forced to survive on loans.

In September, interviews were conducted on behalf of WDM with workers from three factories in Haiti: LV Myles; Buddy, Villard and Faubert (BVF) and Classic. All three are subcontractors for Disney products.

More than 20,000 people work in assembly plants, one-third of which produce clothes for Disney, mainly women's and children's wear, and 90 to 95 per cent of the employees are women, most of them young and single and many with several children to support.

The report concluded that factories are keeping wages down to the lowest level legally allowed; forcing workers to accept overtime with little additional pay, sacking workers who join unions and refusing sickness and maternity leave.

The employees are paid according to work quotas, which they say are too high. Those who make the quota can have a bonus which raises their daily wage to 50 gourdes (almost pounds 2) but workers reported that those who did not make their quotas were suspended for two or three days or even replaced by new workers. For sewing a pounds 19 garment, a Haitian worker receives just under 5p.

One woman sewing sleeves said that there were 50 garments in a packet and to make the quota she has to produce 35 packets each day; 1,750 garments a day.

Conditions were also criticised. One woman from BVF described that in their factory serving hundreds of people there were three lavatories for women, of which two were blocked.

The same woman said that as far as water facilities were concerned, the workers were supposed to drink from a tank that has not been cleaned since the factory opened two years ago.

Recently, a dead toad was found in the tank and a man who went to the management to complain about this was fired. Workers now carry their own work-time drinking water from home.

People also complained that their workplaces had inadequate ventilation. A woman working at LV Myles said the workers had asked for a cafeteria because at the moment they have to eat standing up in the road outside the factory.

"Improving conditions in these factories is not a Herculean task. Disney can well afford to give its workers a fair deal," DM campaigner Aditi Sharma said.

"Disney's Code of Conduct claims to recognise workers' rights but the Haitian workers have never even heard of it."

But trying to get rid of such factories altogether is not the answer, experts warn. Haiti is less dependent than it was in the mid Eighties when up to 120,000 people were employed in factories, James Ferguson, a researcher at the Latin American Bureau, said.

"But in the capital, particularly for women from the poorest shanty towns with large families to support, it would be pretty disastrous if companies moved out. There's nowhere else to go to look for a job."

A spokesman for the Disney Store said yesterday: "Disney is extremely careful about the conditions under which its products are made and always operates within the particular employment, health and safety and environmental laws governing each country.

"In Haiti an inspection and review has demonstrated that we are adhering to all applicable laws and policies; workers who make Disney licensed goods do so in decent conditions and are being paid above the local minimum wage."