Timberland Shoes, Made in China
by Stephanie Pypniowski
Timberland is a US company originating out of Boston. They are mostly known for selling outdoor gear such as boots, backpacks, shoes and even watches. On their web site, Timberland boasts about their company saying, "Here at Timberland, things are different from other companies. At our corporate headquarters, employees work hard to make some of the world's most innovative products, then use paid time-off to make a difference in the community. Children play in our in-house day care center. The committed young people of City Year New Hampshire, a national youth corps that recently set up shop within Timberland's walls, are hard at work. And throughout the entire company, it's evident that doing well and doing good are inextricably linked." From this description, it is almost impossible think that a company like this would ever mistreat its employees. Sadly, the truth behind some of Timberland's working conditions in factories around the world does not match the wonderful description above.
The Pou Yuen Factory in Zhongshan City, China is one of the largest footwear factories in Asia. Its 3,600 workers, 80 percent of which are young women, produce approximately 250,000 pairs of shoes each month. Over 1,000 of these young women are between the ages of 14 and 23. During the busy season, 16 and 17-year-old girls work at the factory up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, putting in a 98-hour workweek. The daycare center mentioned on Timberland's website is nonexistent at the Pou Yuen Factory. Most women are "let go" by the age of 26 because there is a chance that they may become pregnant and the company does not want to have to pay maternity leave. They also feel that by this age, these women are "used up" and "exhausted" from years of long shifts.
Besides the long and exhausting hours, the workers must deal with very dangerous conditions in the factory. In the technical section, workers must deal with an atmosphere containing levels of think dust and smog, deafening noise, unbearable chemical odors from the strong adhesives and extremely high temperatures that can reach over 100 degrees F. All of these conditions can be avoided, but the Timberland Co refuses to spend money to upgrade the poor ventilation system in the factory. The workers are also forced to meet unreasonably high quotas, and yet they are not always given the proper tools that are necessary to make the shoes and meet those quotas. In many instances, workers are forced to handle toxic glues and other solvents without with their bare hands! They are given no gloves nor are they given the proper tools or safety instructions on how to handle them.
The hours at the factory are constantly changing throughout the year. A "regular" daily shift during the slow season is usually around 10 hours a day on Monday through Saturday. During the peak season, however, a regular day for these workers is 7:30am - 6pm, plus a possible 3-6 hours of mandatory overtime per day that the worker is usually not paid for. If a worker chooses not to show up for their overtime hours they must pay a fine of $10.84; if they fail to show up more than twice, the result is the loss of their job. Working 14 hours a day for seven straight days brings their total to 98 exhausting hours of work per week! Furthermore, the workers are cheated out of their fair pay, and only receive money for approximately 80½ hours of labor!
Many of these Chinese workers have no idea how their pay check is calculated. They have no idea what is deducted or at what rate they are even being paid! The typical worker receives only 22 or 23 cents per hour. According to the National Labor Committee, the lowest wage for an employee at the Pou Yuen Factory was 16 cents per hour; the highest was 38 cents per hour. There are, however, what the factory calls, "trainees," who make a mere 12 cents an hour and work 55 hours per week. How does this compare to what their employers receive? "In 1999, Sidney Swartz, Chairman of Timberland, paid himself $1,759,356 in total compensation, or about $7,330 a day. In 1999 his son was paid $1,579,423, or about $6,580 a day; not including millions of dollars in 1999 stock options." In some factories, workers are paid 55 cents per shoe they make, yet these same shoes are sold to the public at prices anywhere from $89-$120. That sounds like quite a profit for the Timberland Shoe Co.
Even the conditions in which Timberland houses their workers are not up to par. Twelve workers are forced to live and sleep in one tiny 13 by 20 foot dorm room. Even worse, is the fact that 24 workers are forced to share one single bathroom. These close quarters can be very dangerous for the transition of illness and diseases. The two eight story dorm buildings as well as the factory are under constant surveillance by a private company of security guards. This factory is starting to sound a bit more like a prison isn't it?
So why don't the workers just form a union and try to force the company to change their ways, and demand fair treatment? "Any attempt to form an independent union at the factory would be immediately crushed through firings and arrests. Anyone the Chinese government considered a ringleader in such an organizing effort would be imprisoned without trial for 5 to 8 years, under administrative detention, in a hard labor camp." The workers are also threatened, or "encouraged" to lie to US auditors when they come to inspect the factory. They are told to never speak badly about the factory and their working conditions.
The owners of the Timberland company obviously do not care about their workers and have no intention of changing these conditions. In a phone interview, Timberland executives admitted to having "prior knowledge of all sweatshop conditions, including the use of child labor inside the Kingmaker factory, but choose not to pull its production orders in an effort to save some 4,700 jobs in that particular textile factory which Timberland helps support." When it comes to making money, companies will do anything. The only way there can be any sort of change is if American consumers speak out against these horrible conditions and force the company to change.