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China - Timberland Has To Take Steps

China - Timberland Has To Take Steps

Call n°278 (20 January 2005 - 15 March 2005)

Timberland presents itself to the public as something of a fairy story: a family business born in the early 1900s that grew into a multinational and "set an example in responsible labour practices for firms throughout the world". The company wants to embody a lifestyle in which commercial concerns are secondary: "We started out as bootmakers, but we’re about much more. Like you, we care about the strength of our neighbourhoods, the well-being of our environment, and the quality of life in our communities" (1). It manages projects that seem to be worthy of a real charitable organization. But this pretty picture lacks consistency, judging by the conditions in which Chinese workers produce Timberland products. A recent investigative report by China Labor Watch (2) reveals the reality behind the scenes at one of the multinational’s sub-contractors: unbearable work pace, forced overtime, starvation wages, psychological and physical harassment, etc. These violations of workers’ rights hardly seem to bother Timberland’s representative on site.

The call for solidarity relayed by China Labor Watch is based on a recent inquiry undertaken in the KingmakerFootwear factor that produces clothing for Timberland. This factory in the industrial area of Guangdong province in southern China employs 4,700 workers, most of whom are women.

The first point of the report concerns working hours. For workers the average day at KingmakerFootwear consists of 13.5 hours of presence on site and 11 hours of work. With Saturday mornings included, that makes a working week of 60 hours, far more than the 40 hours provided for by Chinese law. Even worse is the fact that during peak periods workers are required to do overtime. Their working days can last up to 10 or 11 p.m. and sometimes may even include Saturdays and Sundays. These extra hours are underpaid compared to the legal rate, when they are paid at all.

During their rest periods workers are not allowed to return to their dormitories and have to rest in the workshops, despite the lack of comfort and safety precautions.

What the inquiry reveals

Workers receive a basic monthly wage of 450 Yuan (41 euros) plus piece rate wages. They do not know how these piece rates are calculated. The full monthly wage, after deductions for meals taken on site, is under 600 Yuan (55 euros). These already low wages are sometimes further reduced by a number of dubious deductions such as fines for "offences", or deduction of two days’ wages and the monthly bonus when workers take one extra day’s leave. Wages are furthermore paid one month in arrears. The first wages are paid only on the 25th of the second month following a worker’s recruitment, so that resigning means losing a month’s pay.

The low quality of the food served at meals is also reported. In early December 2004, 50 workers had food poisoning for which some had to be hospitalized. Those who choose to eat elsewhere still have pay deducted for meals. The dormitories, in which 16 people share a room, lack adequate toilet and bathroom facilities.

Unfortunately the list of violations doesn't stop there. When it comes to social security and paid holidays the firm's record is no better. Children under the age of 16 are sometimes employed and toxic products are used without the workers being informed.

This contempt for human dignity also translates into harassment. Insulting workers is common practice. Shortly before the investigation a woman was beaten by a team supervisor. She was still in hospital with a broken rib at the time of the investigation. The firm failed to take disciplinary measures against the supervisor and refused to pay for the employee's medical expenses.

Accepting responsibility

In China the absence of the right to organize facilitates unrestrained labour exploitation. This "advantageous" situation has caused many clothing manufacturers to delocalize their production units to that country – a trend likely to increase with the end of the quota system (3).

Because Chinese workers do not have the means to defend their rights effectively, the responsibility of firms is even greater, as is that of consumers. It is therefore important to remind firms of their own codes of conduct and to demand improvements.

The Timberland representatives at Kingmaker Footwear are clearly not concerned about the many violations of social and economic rights. Now that these have been publicized, the multinational has been summoned to react. The worst would be if it withdrew by suddenly severing its relations with its sub-contractor, causing the workers to lose their jobs. Who would stop it then from simply obtaining its supplies in the same way elsewhere, out of sight of international public opinion?

Since Timberland wants to be "exemplary", it has to accept its responsibilities by improving the situation on site – even if that means questioning current buying practices and guaranteeing prices that allow more honourable treatment of those generating its wealth.

(1) Quotations from the Timberland website:

(2) Report available on the site:

(3) Until January 2005 these quotas regulated international textile trade by allocating export ceilings to countries.

© Scoop Media

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