Letter from China

Letter from... by Li Qiang, September 2008

The Beijing Olympics prompted attacks from many in the West over China's human rights record. But, argues Li Qiang, Western multinationals are central to the exploitation of Chinese workers

Adidas was one of the major sponsors of the Beijing Olympics. In China there are more than 200 factories employing over 250,000 workers that produce goods for Adidas.

Migrant workers represent about 200 million of China's population. Most of them part with their families in rural villages and travel hundreds of miles to work in the cities. Many have sacrificed their own education so that their siblings can enjoy higher education or a family member's sickness may be treated. Some leave because the economy in the rural areas no longer enables them to support a large family. Their goal is only to earn money so that their family will no longer suffer in despair or poverty.

Factories often prefer female migrant workers, as employers tend to believe that women are obedient and easier to manage. Nevertheless, they welcome all migrant workers, as most of them come with limited education and knowledge of their rights. This leads to deeply exploitative behaviour by managers: excessive working hours, inadequate pay, unreasonable fines, mandatory fees, lack of safety equipment, and even the attempt to convert workers to vegetarianism to save on costs.

While not all factories have such poor conditions, many suppliers to multinationals employ such strategies in order to accommodate their clients' low cost demands.

Workers do not care what type of work they do. They merely wish to be paid fair and square so that they can send money home on a monthly basis while supporting themselves in the city.

They work an average of six days a week, ten to 12 hours a day. Eight to ten workers are housed in tiny dorm rooms and share one bathroom. Many of them do not have pensions or unemployment insurance. While Adidas outfits 16 Olympic teams, technical officers and volunteers, workers at the Chengda factory can only enjoy the luxury of face masks and gloves when audits are taking place. They don't even have a choice of how to eat, because the factory automatically charges a dining fee without their consent.

Adidas claims a gross profit increase from €2.8 billion in 2004 to €4.9 billion in 2007. Asia, its second largest market, has helped Adidas to reach €959 million in sales in the first half of 2008 alone. The increase in sales was attributed particularly to the Chinese market. The workers at Supercap on the other hand, a production centre for Adidas, are rewarded for the increase in sales with just 65 cents an hour. While Adidas enjoys these profits and allocates much of it in sponsoring the Olympics as an advertising strategy, workers at Supercap have argued with their supervisors that they are entitled to a wage matching what they produce.

Although some Adidas suppliers, such as Chenda, claim that overtime is voluntary, workers have no choice but to work overtime in order to survive and support their families. Most workers cannot even imagine owning the Adidas products they manufacture.

Adidas has paid about €47 million to host this year's Olympics. It is not difficult to see where this money came from - the long working hours and low wages of 250,000 Chinese workers. While Adidas gains all the fame and fortune from the Olympics, its workers still work day in and day out in front of production lines, hoping to earn that extra dime, literally.

When it was announced that China was to hold the Olympics in 2008, many concerned individuals wanted to influence China's human rights and environmental policies through multinational corporations. But such an attempt is nearly impossible under their profit-driven mentality.

Who benefits the most from the Olympics? It is not the general audience who were finally granted the opportunity to see the athletes who are the best of the best, or the athletes who trained year after year hoping to have a chance to shine in the event that takes place only once in four years.

From the event that was originally dedicated to serve as a symbol of hope and peace, companies such as Adidas, Coca-Cola, Lenovo and McDonald's are the ones who truly benefit.

Li Qiang is founder and executive director of China Labor Watch


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