ASIA’S MALIGNED MAKERS

Byline: Constance Haisma-Kwok, Hong Kong, / N. Vasuki Rao, New Delhi

HONG KONG — Asia faces a lot of criticism from the West for its labor standards, with allegations of underage employees, long working hours, low wages and worse problems frequently cropping up.
While Asian officials don’t deny that there are problems, they note that the adoption of codes of conduct by U.S. customers over the past decade has had an effect on conditions, as many plants are unwilling to jeopardize lucrative contracts with American brands.
“Sometimes you just want to tell America to look in its own backyard,” said Gemma Choi, a former director of overseas merchandising services for Associated Merchandising Service. “Look in Chinatown at the indentured workers, at women who work in basements, sewing under dim lights. Look home, before you criticize us.”
Choi, who spent years evaluating Asian factories, said she has never seen a child laborer.
“I don’t doubt that there are people using underage children, but I do doubt that these are factories who are dealing with U.S. customers,” she said. “They cannot afford not to comply with U.S. standards.”
Where abuse does occur, Choi said, is at the subcontractor level. That means that U.S. brands should look carefully to see if the plants from which they are buying are outsourcing any of the work.
China is awash in labor-related contradictions. In late 2000, a knitting worker, whose arms were severed in an industrial accident, won the nation’s largest-ever worker’s compensation settlement — about $160,000. Around that time, a laborer at a Jiangsu silk factory was committed after trying to organize a protest over unpaid wages.
The International Labor Organization estimated that in 2000 there were 9.25 million economically active children aged 10 to 14 in China. The country’s legal working age is 16.
In India, too, there are are allegations of sweatshops, but industry and government officials adamantly deny them. J.P. Singh, a labor leader in Delhi, contended that some factories pay workers only $22 to $43 a month, but force them to sign receipts for a higher amount.
The legal minimum wage in India varies. In New Delhi it is about $52 a month — well more than the $21 the Indian government considers poverty.
“Subcontracting work and child labor continue to exist today,” said Kailash Satyarthi, chairman of the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude.
These allegations are contested by the government and factory owners.
“Apparel workers are paid more than the minimum wages,” said K.L. Madan, who heads the Garment Exporters Association. “They also get prerequisites like bonus and medical benefits.”
Indian manufacturers also said the codes of conduct required by U.S. customers are changing standards.
“We have sudden inspections of our factories and payroll records, sometimes, late at night, by our buyers,” said Virender Uppal, partner in Richa & Co., a quarter-century-old garment maker. “The inspection teams talk to workers and even visit their homes to see if we are treating them right.”