CHINA: Students and academics against sweatshops

Every summer for the last six years Parry Leung, a doctoral student at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), has visited factories in China on a mission to uncover exploitative practices at the manufacturing plants of well-known global brands.

His first trip in 2005, together with 30 fellow students from Hong Kong, was prompted by media reports of the use of child labour and inhumane working conditions at factories making toys for Disney, ahead of the opening of the Disneyland theme park in Hong Kong later that year.

They travelled to Shenzhen in southern China and talked to workers out of sight of factory staff, about the working conditions. They were alarmed and saddened to see young workers with missing fingers. Because of the unsafe environment, they were told, finger-chopping accidents happened every week.

The students publicised their findings when they returned to Hong Kong and demanded compensation for the victims.

The company finally agreed to offer legal compensation and improve factory conditions and the case led to the birth of the Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), which has now evolved into a leading campaigner locally and internationally against sweatshop manufacturing in China.

"We look like workers in terms of age so this helps prevent suspicion from factory people. We only disclose our identity to workers we are well-familiar with," said Leung, who is finishing up his PhD thesis at HKUST, on the struggles of migrant workers in China. The students are also careful to talk to workers outside the factories, so that they are not accused of trespassing.

Postgraduate students make up SACOM's core membership. Different students go on SACOM fact-finding trips each year, tipped off by their friends or others, said Leung, a slender activist in his early 30s who was a student union leader in his undergraduate days.

The organisation has a low profile in Hong Kong but has helped fill a vital gap in the monitoring of China's work practices, with so many factories scattered over towns and cities in the Pearl River delta.

"We cannot take up many mainland [China] issues because there are so many issues that we are already faced with here," said Elizabeth Tang Yin-ngor, Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, one of the largest trade unions in the city.

SACOM targets leading brand names that capitalise on China's huge, cheap labour force, said Parry Leung, who is also a community college lecturer.

Few factories in China supplying international companies have trade union representation, while local workers say trade unions are rarely able to stand up for labour rights.

Foxconn, a major production plant for Apple iPads, was singled out in SACOM's latest report in May for negligence of industrial safety at its newly-constructed plant in the city of Chengdu. When SACOM visited in March and April, the group found that the hastily-built site was not yet ready for production activities. "Where the workers worked was like a construction site," said Leung.

Inside, SACOM investigators found workers polishing iPad cases in poorly ventilated rooms filled with aluminum dust. Not long after that SACOM investigation, an explosion at the plant killed three workers and injured 15 others. On 26 May, a worker in Chengdu jumped to his death - the 15th Foxconn employee to have committed suicide since January 2010.

The reasons for the suicides in Chengdu and the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen are still unknown, but media reported a strict regime and intense work pressure.

"Foxconn is not the worst. Its working conditions are relatively better than many others," said Leung. "But we focus on the manufacturers for big labels because we want to attract more public concern and think that large companies should bear a larger share of social responsibility."

Another company on the group's watch list is Walmart, with which SACOM is involved in a fight for compensation for its workers in the southern city of Zhuhai.

SACOM is advised by an international panel of academics. One of them is Pun Ngai, an associate professor in the department of applied social studies at Hong Kong's Polytechnic University and a well-known expert on labour issues in China.

"Their [SACOM's] information echoes my own research findings," said Pun, author of Made in China: Women factory workers in a global workplace.

"We make reference to each other's reports. SACOM is involved in a consumer awareness campaign. Consumers can exert pressure on brands, which will make them better monitor their factories. In the long run, it can make long-term contributions to improving working conditions in China," Pun said.

Other academic advisors are from Britain, Australia, France, the US, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Staying alert to the latest trends and fads in the global market helps SACOM identify which companies to monitor. The chances for worker exploitation are higher the more 'craze' there is for a product," said Leung.

"The more money a company is making, the more pressure they will exert on their workers to meet their production goals. They won't want to increase their production costs. That is the reality. Hopefully rising public concern can trigger systematic changes."

International companies like Disney, Walmart and Toys 'R' Us support the International Council of Toy Industries (ICTI) CARE Process, set up to ensure safe and humane workplace environments for toy factory workers worldwide, and agree to buy only from factories certified by the council.

More than 2,300 factories in China are certified, with a combined workforce of 1.7 million, according to SACOM.

But the group maintains ICTI has turned a blind eye to labour rights violations such as denial of employment contracts or falsified contracts, underpayment, excessive and forced overtime, absence of social insurance and poor health and safety measures, at some certified factories.

"We want to see changes in the consumer's mindset so, for example, they will associate a theme park with a sweatshop instead. Company changes hinge on the consumer market," said Leung, who added: "Far more hidden practices remain to be uncovered."