While the Buddhist monks and people of Burma heroically defy bullets and batons to continue to march against the military junta, no one should be surprised that world leaders sit on their hands and/or offer up crocodile tears. Some, like the Chinese regime, have a lot to lose in Burma – and we’re not just talking about trade in oil, gas and timber. Beijing’s Stalinist rulers in particular are terrified that the mass movement in Burma could easily spread to China itself and unseat the corrupt bureaucracy ruling the country. The Chinese leadership has turned the country into a paradise for the global corporations – and a nightmare for hundreds of millions of workers and peasants. Countless strikes, riots and demonstrations are reported in the official press – so the real picture must be much worse.
A recent report into China’s toy export industry exposes the super-exploitation. The report describes working conditions as “devastatingly brutal”, with long hours, unsafe workplaces and restricted freedom of association – all in “blatant violation of Chinese and international labour law”. Whole batches of toys were recently recalled because they were unsafe and the report blames the transnational corporations for their “single-minded pursuit of ever lower prices” The Hasbro corporation is a major manufacturer in China. Hasbro reported net revenues of $691.4 million for the second quarter of 2007 – up 31% on a year ago and an operating profit for the period of $55.8 million, up a whopping 171% on the same period last year. The reason for soaring profits is self-evident. The report says: “Short-sighted policies drive corporations like Hasbro to turn a blind eye to safety - and to ignore the labour conditions in their supplier factories, as well. Instead of concentrating on improving product safety and workers’ lives, companies spend their energy creating beautiful pamphlets on social responsibility, disputing critical reports and shifting blame.”
During its investigation, China Labour Watch found that workers often worked for a month without a day off, facing the sack they declined “overtime”. Factories illegally impose fines and fees. The resulting wage is well below the official minimum wage for the region of about $92 per month. Raw materials, work equipments, rubbish, unfinished products and finished products are piled up throughout plants, including the emergency exits. The report concludes: “To multinational toy companies, workers are merely tools to use to build their massive profits.”
As for the so-called European Union sanctions against Burma, these are clearly not worth the paper they are written on. New Labour, which merely calls for “restraint” in Burma, is accused by campaigners of conducting business as usual. "The EU sanctions are pathetic: it's as if they've been designed to miss the mark," said Mark Farmaner, acting director of the Burma Campaign UK. "You have no significant trade sanctions at all; there is a limited investment ban for some named state-owned enterprises including a pineapple company, tailors shops and others. The timber and gas sections where the regime earns most of its revenue were exempt... so it's had no impact at all." Over the past three years, British imports in some categories such as seafood, footwear and handbags, have actually risen. Timbmet, a British wood company, which did £3m of business with Burma last year, says it is now pulling out. Director Mike Packer, says: "So far as we are concerned... there's been no approach to timber importers to say the government doesn't support trade with Burma."
AWTW communications editor