(Adds EIA report)
By Karey Wutkowski
WASHINGTON, Dec 12 (Reuters) - Christmas tree ornaments sold at Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N) and other major retailers were made in a Chinese sweatshop employing workers as young as 12 and others who work more than 100 hours a week, a Democratic senator said on Wednesday.
“There is virtually no enforcement anywhere on these issues,” Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota said at a news conference to release a study about how Chinese sweatshops provide cheap goods for the U.S. market. “Our country needs to insist that our trading partners enforce their own labor laws and respect international labor standards.”
The study was conducted by the National Labor Committee, a human rights organization based in New York, and highlighted conditions at the Guangzhou Huanya Gift company, a top ornament manufacturer in China that employs 8,000 workers. It found some employees were paid as little as 26 cents an hour, half the legal minimum wage in China, and that employees in the spray paint department handled potentially dangerous chemicals with little or no protection.
Attempts to reach Guangzhou Huanya for comment were not successful.
Wal-Mart said it launched an immediate investigation after receiving a copy of the report.
“Through our rigorous ethical standards program, Wal-Mart aggressively deals with any allegations of improper conditions at our suppliers’ factories,” a company spokesman said.
The spokesman did not have an immediate comment about another report about Wal-Mart released on Wednesday from the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency. The EIA released undercover video surveillance that claims Wal-Mart has been selling wood products made from illegally logged timber.
The report on Christmas ornaments was released as U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson visited China for two days of talks on food safety, China’s relatively weak currency and other trade tensions.
Dorgan said the report highlighted a “serious trade problem,” which has also been brought to the public’s attention by the recalls of millions of Chinese-made toys in recent months.
Some of the most popular branded toys in the United States, including Thomas the Tank Engine, Curious George and SpongeBob SquarePants, have been pulled from shelves because they contain unsafe levels of lead and other hazards, such as small magnets.
Dorgan said consumers do not have enough information to make knowledgeable decisions about what products to buy and it is government’s responsibility to police imported goods.
“We should not have on our shelves the products of sweatshop labor,” he said.
Dorgan introduced legislation earlier this year to crack down on imports of such products. It would also give the U.S. Federal Trade Commission more authority and funding to investigate sweatshop conditions.
A similar bill is pending in the House of Representatives.
“Global trade is here, but there must be rules that protect consumers and there must be rules that protect workers,” Dorgan added.
The report was posted on the Internet here. (Reporting by Karey Wutkowski; editing by John Wallace and Andre Grenon)