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Workers Rights Advocates Slam 'Deplorable' Conditions in Sweatshops

U.S. concern over Chinese imports appears to be shifting from unsafe products to unsafe working conditions. At a Senate hearing this past week, lawmakers were told many of the toys that have been deemed "unsafe" are the products of Chinese factories that employ thousands of people working in what witnesses called "deplorable" conditions. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.

They work long hours for very little pay. And according to Charles Kernaghan, the director of the National Labor Committee, these Chinese toy factories violate with impunity the country's already lax labor laws. "The workers are forced to work 14 and a half hours a day, from 8:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., seven days a week."

Testifying at a U.S. Senate hearing on international trade, Kernaghan outlined the sweatshop conditions in factories where many U.S. toys and sporting goods are made. "Workers in this factory are allowed a minute and a half to assemble this toy, this "Condor" mask, for which they are paid less than two cents."

Toy manufacturer Mattel recalled more than 21 million toys made in China this year after they were found to contain toxic lead paint or tiny magnets that can be swallowed by children. Researchers, who spent a year investigating factories in China, blamed U.S. toymakers and retailers for ignoring worker conditions for the sake of profits.

Bama Athreya is executive director of the International Labor RIghts Forum.

"On the one hand, Wal-Mart and other retailers and brands are telling you, ‘Don't worry, we have voluntary codes of conduct, we will protect the workers ourselves.’ And on the other hand, they're vigorously lobbying the Chinese government not to strengthen its legal protections for workers," she told the Senate panel.

"No American worker should be told you've lost your job because you can't compete with a sweatshop," said Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan, who called the hearing to push legislation that would ban the import of products made in unsafe or abusive conditions.

"We should not have the products of sweatshop labor coming into this country to be sold,” he said. “That's profiting at the misery of others and that's not something this country should condone."

The toy industry association says it has started an aggressive program to protect Chinese workers from harsh conditions. But workers rights advocates say many of the improvements have yet to be implemented at thousands of Chinese factories.