McDonald's faces child-labour furore

Like their counterparts worldwide, young people in Hong Kong are keen followers of fashion. Few fads are more popular than the Hello Kitty, Winnie the Pooh and Snoopy toys that bring the crowds through McDonald's doors. "Our teenagers are crazy about these toys," says Monina Wong of the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee. "They queue up night and day for them."

Like their counterparts worldwide, young people in Hong Kong are keen followers of fashion. Few fads are more popular than the Hello Kitty, Winnie the Pooh and Snoopy toys that bring the crowds through McDonald's doors. "Our teenagers are crazy about these toys," says Monina Wong of the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee. "They queue up night and day for them."

Just over the border in the mainland city of Shenzhen, hundreds of 14 and 15-year-olds lavish equally long hours on the same toys. Except these are child labourers sweating from 7am to midnight packaging the cute fashion icons sold with McDonald's meals. According to Wong's labour union, the children receive a daily wage of just £1.88, barely enough for a Big Mac Meal in the former British colony.

The embarrassing claims made against McDonald's last week have turned a rare spotlight on a problem the Chinese government prefers to keep hidden. As labour groups in Hong Kong called for a boycott of the burger giant, the company has launched an inquiry led by its US headquarters to establish whether the Shenzhen supplier broke McDonald's code of conduct. But while McDonald's can switch suppliers, the child workers have little alternative.

Throughout China, millions of under-age workers endure slave-like and hazardous conditions toiling long hours for low pay. Many like the McDonald's packers are migrants from the countryside exploited in China's headlong rush towards capitalism. Forged identity cards help circumnavigate legal prohibitions on hiring workers under 16 years old. The benefits for employers far outweigh the risk of fines that range from £240 to $400.

McDonald's stated that previous audits of the Shenzhen factory revealed no underage workers, yet these visits were announced in advance, and fake ID cards are easily procured. Factory bosses are adept at avoiding official inspections, according to May Wong of Asia Monitor Research Centre, a labour monitor in Hong Kong. "It may be impossible to wipe out the illegal practice [of child labour]," admits Wong. "But if the local authorities really want to discover infringements, there must be ways. You don't have to wait to deal with the issue only when an accident involving child labour occurs, such as child workers dying in a fire."

Government sensitivity towards child labour, combined with its covert nature, hinders accurate estimates of the problem. China is now home to over 300 million children under the age of 16, or around one fifth of the total number of children worldwide. In 1996, the International Labour Organisation reported that among 10 to 14-year-old children in China, the percentage of working children was as high as 11.6 per cent, or 13.3 million children.

Yet in the same year Peking issued a white paper on the state of China's children which ignored the problem. Officials contacted by the Independent on Sunday at the Ministry of Labour and Social Security claimed there were no official figures because child labour "is not a problem in China".

In contrast to India, which welcomes foreign researchers and aid agencies to assist its 40 to 100 million under-age workers, the Chinese government has repeatedly turned down offers of help from foreign NGOs.

Hou Wenzhuo, director of the Internal Migrants Legal Aid & Research Centre, a Peking-based NGO, blames the crisis on local education in the countryside: "It is increasingly expensive to send children to school and parents prefer to spend money on things like building houses rather than educating their kids." Girls comprise a much higher percentage of drop-outs than boys as parents are reluctant to "waste" money on daughters who will be "married off" to other families.

Hu Changjun was desperate to escape the poverty trap in Wuxi county in southwest China's Sichuan province. Her mother had borne a long anticipated baby boy and Hu's father stopped her schooling so she could help at home and spare the family purse. Then a fellow villager offered her work at a joint-venture pickling factory in distant Peking. "A joint venture means a foreign company where the work is easy and the pay is good," the woman explained.

The reality proved to be sixteen-hour days, seven days a week, washing and drying vegetables for £24 a month.

Less than a year after starting work, Hu caught her right arm in an industrial drier. The accident in December 1996 crippled her. She was just 13.

But for her accident, Hu would gladly have continued at the pickle factory. As it is, she was exceedingly lucky to find a lawyer who saw through a marathon court battle that climaxed in June this year with a surprising win for Hu and compensation worth £24,000.

But Hu's case is unlikely to prove a watershed victory for under-age workers in China. Without better law enforcement, independent trade unions and cheaper education, the economic arguments for exploiting child labour remain overwhelming. The press is beginning to expose abuses, but most of China's young victims have no legal protection.

In Hong Kong, the boycott of McDonald's outlets may not have slowed sales, but Wong is glad the problem is at least now out in the open. "Before our report, teenagers had no idea the toys were manufactured under such conditions. Now we have to bridge the gap between them knowing about such issues and taking action."

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