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Howard's End: Tears Not Included

As the New Zealand Government pushes for even more free-trade deals and you watch your kids and grand-kids open their Christmas presents later this month, spare a thought for the millions of people around the world, including stateless refugees without papers, who might have made those presents you so lovingly chose. Maree Howard.

It's time to remind New Zealanders, the pro-free-trade media and political free-trade policy wonks, that many nations we import goods from still have abysmal factory conditions like the kind we abolished early last century.

"The workers still live in unhealthy and overcrowded dormitories and only have a bed where they can store their meagre belongings," says a recent report about China issued by the Hong Kong-based Asia Monitor Resource Centre.

Worse, the report says many of the factories are owned by Government companies subcontracting to Western firms.

The Centre said its operatives interviewed employees - mostly women aged 17-25 - in dozens of Chinese factories, mostly in the Guangdong province, home to 6,000 factories that employ millions of workers.

Most of the toys for the West are produced there, the report says.

China enjoys preferential trade status with the U.S. and has recently become a member of the World Trade Organisation. (WTO)

Workers are required to put in 16 hour days for six, sometimes seven, days a week and are being paid the equivalent of $NZD100 a month.

The Centre's report said after the women, "leave their village, they can only continue to live in the city because of the contract with their employer who, at times, confiscates their papers to prevent them from leaving. As soon as they reach age 25, they are considered too old to work and are discarded. They often turn to prostitution so as not to return to their birthplace, where they are no longer respected."

Due to preferential trade treatment and free-trade agreements between countries, including New Zealand, the abuse is set to continue unabated.

The political lowering of trade barriers, without human rights abuses being addressed, has seen an explosion of low-cost manufacturing centres in Asia and Latin America meaning cheap goods wield much more influence with politicians, voters and policymakers than the rights and conditions of workers half a world away.

Some international labour experts are not surprised by the lack of interest or concern by Western politicians over the abusive treatment of workers.

"With the globalisation of the international economy, many multinational corporations have chosen to shift their manufacturing base to countries which, like China, offer low wages, weak labour laws and suppression of human rights and conditions," says an analysis by the International Labour Rights Fund.

"Working two or three hours overtime on a normal workday, with only two days off every month is not uncommon," says sociologist Anita Chan, who has conducted research in footwear factories in China and who also documented practices of bonded labour, corporal punishment and hazardous health and safety conditions.

The abuse of Chinese workers is further detailed in a new book, "China's Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labour in a Globalising Economy," published by Asia Monitor Resource Centre.

The authors debunk, "the conventional wisdom that workers are thriving because the economy is thriving."

Despite an appalling record of working conditions and human rights abuses where workers have no voice in the political system, China was still admitted to the WTO.

"Multinational corporations are likely to shift even more production there, which in turn will lead other developing nations to weaken their worker-protection laws to avoid losing market-share to China," warned AFL-CIO President John Sweeney in a statement on 15 November 2001.

At its meeting at Qatar last month, the 142 nation WTO, "rejected extremely reasonable and moderate proposals to cooperate with the International Labour Organisation in a substantive dialogue on workers' rights," Sweeney said.

Poor working conditions in global factories, and a lack of human rights, are not new. Many other groups have documented worker abuse and working conditions long considered appalling by the West.

Despite repeated documentation of poor working conditions throughout Asia and Latin America, and one could add Japan and Europe, policymakers and Parliaments are still pushing for more free trade of the kind which would allow even more companies to set up shop in human rights abusing countries thus enlarging trade deficits and doing little to protect the rights of abused workers.

President Bush said earlier this year "Open trade is not just an economic opportunity, it is a moral imperative." But morals have got nothing to do with it because for too many years the words of politicians rarely match the deeds.

And if the Kyoto Protocol on climate change takes hold in the developed world more Western companies, including American who have discarded Kyoto, are still likely to make the move to countries like China, India and Mexico who are not subjected to the regulations regime and also offer the cheap labour.

If New Zealand politicians were genuine and serious about factory human rights abuses across the globe, then it would be a simple matter to implement controls at our border which would insist on a declaration about country of origin and that each imported product was fairly produced.

As millions of children in the West prepare to open billions of dollars worth of Christmas presents later this month, somewhere else, another tear will fall.


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