Child Slave Labor in the Walt Disney Company
by Frederick Kopp
For decades people around the world have associated "Disney" with innocence, imagination, and purity. However, behind the scenes of this gigantic company there are human rights violations being committed daily around the world. In factories workers are being paid staggeringly low wages. These factories not only pay their employees minute amounts, but they provide dirt-poor conditions as well. This issue is a problem not only for the third world nations, but for Americans also.
The small Caribbean island of Haiti is the most glaring example of an inhumane Disney sweatshop. Workers there stitch Aladdin t-shirts for 28 cents an hour (Haiti). Surprisingly, this is by far highest wage of the three sweatshops cited in this report. However, food can actually be as expensive in Haiti as it is in the United States. After taxes, a Haitian sweatshop worker will have 15-20 dollars a month. Everything is put into perspective when it's noted that it costs 20 dollars a month to rent a one-room shack with no running water. Simply put, a single individual would find it difficult to survive on these means, let alone someone with children.
Most of the world's slave labor in the past ten years has taken place in Asia. In Vietnam, the Walt Disney Company runs a sweatshop that produces those plastic toys that accompany many fast food meals. Employees of this factory work seven days a week, for ten hours a day. That is almost double the average American's work week. However, these people make only 17 cents an hour. Three years ago, 200 women of this factory has to be hospitalized due to being exposed to acetone, a toxic substance. The factory refused to make any changes in the ventilation system or health code.
It isn't difficult to understand the injustices taking place here. The solution isn't necessarily full blown Socialism. However, when a Disney sweatshop worker in Burma is paid six cents a day for tedious labor, that figure stands in stark contract to Disney CEO Michael Eisner's income of about 102,000 thousand dollars an hour. Sadly, the demand for jobs at such a low wage only reiterates that whole nations are extremely needy. The issue becomes whether or not it is morally wrong to pay so little when a company can easily afford more.
Wages are only one of the negative aspects of these Disney sweatshops. Besides the Megatex factory in Haiti, there is no tolerance for worker's rights. When reading quotes from Disney sweatshop employees worldwide, one uniform theme was that any worker suspected of organizing for grievances would be fired immediately. The Code of Conduct that is upheld in every other Disney operation seems to never be enforced in the Asian sweatshops.
Besides poor conditions, another constant among these sweatshops is that the workforce is comprised almost entirely of women and children. Most workers are between the ages of 10 and 30. Women are encouraged not to get pregnant because they usually get fired. There are also numerous accounts of supervisor's selecting mistresses out of their workforce. The worker is left to choose between complying and losing her job, devastating when she is living in dire poverty. These barbaric conditions are prevalent throughout most of the Asian sweatshops.
Although these people may not be physically enslaved, financially they usually are. No one has savings accounts, and everyone works paycheck to paycheck. Living quarters are rented, and the rent requires almost all of the wages earned. So many people in these countries are unemployed that losing one's job means having to look long and hard for a new one. When one has children this is not always an option.
One problem that arises from this issue is that unfair fines are frequently handed out. They can range from 60 cents to 35 dollars. Petty grounds for giving fines include forgetting to turn the lights off and showing up to work late. A fine that can cost up to two months of pay devastates many already poor people. Sometimes employers give constant fines so the woman or child can not quit before paying. In essence this is slavery because the employee can not effectively quit.
Recently people have begun to encourage Disney to take responsibility for the quality of their overseas factories. Shirley Slesinger Lasswell, husband of the late Stephen Slesinger who acquired the rights to Winnie the Pooh in the 1930's, has taken a stand. When, at a news conference, she heard of the beatings, 14 hour days, and poor wages at Disney's Dhaka sweatshop, she began tearfully pleading for better conditions. The National Labor Committee has taken her side in the fight to improve Disney production facilities worldwide.
With the Walt Disney Company in particular, Congress has taken a stand. Rather than bettering conditions in Haiti, Disney contractor H.H. Cutler attempted to move the plant to China. In China they would be able to pay their workers even lower wages, and maintain an even lower standard of humane treatment. The US government decided to write a personal letter to CEO Michael Eisner encouraging him to stay in Haiti and improve conditions for his workers. Eisner never responded and Cutler moved the plant from Haiti to China shortly thereafter.
These child sweatshops can not receive all of the blame for their treatment of the workers. They are required to produce a given amount of merchandise with a given amount of funds. If they pay their employees any more, they will end up losing money. It all starts at the top of the ladder with the executives at the Walt Disney Company. If they pay people higher in the chain, it will filter all the way down to the sweatshops. All of the areas in between have to be held accountable for paying responsibly.
In conclusion, these sweatshops that Disney funds are very real. The US Government can not take significant action because these operations are not on their soil. Organizations such as the National Labor Committee are focused on the issue and do their part in protesting and bringing the issue to attention. Despite their efforts, the same conditions continue every day in China and other parts of Asia for overseas factory workers.