Sweatshop Retailer of the Year: Disney

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TORONTO (CUP) - Pay workers a pittance, force them to work more than eighty hours per week and house them in cramped, crowded dorms.

You could win an award.

Citing disturbing labour practices overseas, The Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN) named Disney "Sweatshop Retailer of the Year" last Monday during a mock awards ceremony outside the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Inside the building, the Retail Council of Canada was having its own awards presentation, handing accolades to corporations like Home Depot, Rogers and Wal-Mart.

The MSN points to a searing report from the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee (CIC) documenting working conditions in twelve Disney supply factories in China. According to the CIC, the migrant women making Disney toys and clothes are forced to work up to sixteen hours a day, six or seven days a week, for as little as CD$90 a month. In one factory, more than twenty workers were crowded into single dorm rooms and slept on triple-decker bunk beds. Workers interviewed by the CIC also complained of being fined for talking at work and for forgetting to turn off the lights in their factory dorm rooms.

Bob Jeffcott, a policy analyst with MSN, says the mock awards ceremony is an attempt to direct public attention towards the employment practices of corporations like Disney that are generally considered wholesome, family-oriented companies.

"It's surprising and shocking to a lot of people that a company like [Disney] is exploiting migrant workers," Jeffcott said.

Disney spokesperson Ken Green denied Disney was responsible for the alleged labour abuses. Disney doesn't own the supply factories that produce Disney products, he said, but rather contracts out to manufacturing outlets.

During its mock ceremony, the MSN also recognized Wal-Mart as the recipient of its "Smokescreen Award" for allegedly misleading customers about the corporation's association with a Chinese factory producing Kathie Lee handbags. The MSN charges factory workers were reportedly locked in the plant for all but one hour a day, forced to work up to ninety hours a week and were physically abused if they talked back to management.

Ironically, at its own awards ceremony, the Retail Council of Canada named Wal-Mart as a finalist in its "Socially Responsible Retailer" category for "community involvement, health-related or environmental causes."

Retail Council spokesperson Pamela Addo referred calls to president and CEO Diane Brisebois. Brisebois did not return calls.

The MSN also recognized Liz Claiborne for increased transparency and gave Mountain Equipment Coop an "honorary picket fence award." Jeffcott says Liz Claiborne is "far from sweat-free" but has agreed to make public a highly critical report on factory conditions released by COVERCO, an independent Guatemalan monitoring organization. Mountain Equipment Coop was recognized for a code of conduct the MSN says doesn't mention child labour, hours of work or the right to bargain collectively.

Tanya Roberts-Davis, a Trent University student and member of Students Against Sweatshops-Canada, says she hopes events like MSN's awards ceremony will draw attention to an industry where contracting cheap labor overseas has become the norm.

"It's incredibly important to support these workers," Roberts-Davis said. "Everybody needs dignity."

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