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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 June 2007, 22:59 GMT 23:59 UK
Chinese Olympic firms deny abuse
By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Guangdong, China

Workers at Lekit Stationery
Lekit workers make notebooks and stickers for the Beijing Olympics
Chinese firms awarded lucrative contracts to produce merchandise related to the Beijing Olympics next year have denied claims they exploit their workers.

They have been accused of employing child labour, paying wages that are below the legal minimum and ignoring safety standards.

But two out of the four firms cited in a report published by an alliance of trade unions, non-governmental organisations and labour groups say they treat their workers well.

Perhaps the most serious accusations in the report relate to Lekit Stationery, a Taiwanese company that has been operating in the city of Dongguan, in Guangdong province, for the last 20 years.

According to the report, Lekit, which makes paper cups, notebooks and stickers adorned with Olympic motifs, employed children and forced them to work up to 13 hours a day.

"It's not true," company manager Michael Lee told the BBC. "We work for some of the best brand names in the world and they check our company every month."

'Complete compliance'

To prove his point, Mr Lee produced a framed certificate that had been hanging on an office wall.

It's not worth it for us to hire 20 or 30 underage workers to increase our capacity. We would lose too much
Michael Lee
Lekit company manager

It was from a well-known Western stationery company and praised Lekit for its high "standards and practices in dealing with workers and their working environment."

"It's not worth it for us to hire 20 or 30 underage workers to increase our capacity. We would lose too much," said Mr Lee.

He said the factory's 420 workers earned a basic monthly salary of around 700 yuan (46; $91). Overtime is paid at time and a half.

Dormitory accommodation is free and the firm charges employees 6 yuan a day (0.40; $0.80) for three meals.

In a bid to further convince the BBC that his company abides by the rules, Mr Lee conducted a tour of his neat-looking factory.

It was Sunday, so only a handful of well-dressed workers were folding, stacking and collating paper products.

"There's complete compliance," the manager said as he led the tour past employees sitting next to fans that cooled them as they worked.

Outside the factory gates it was impossible to find anyone who could verify the claim that children had been employed at the firm.

'Model' factory

It was a similar story of denial at Mainland Headwear Holdings, which sits half-way up a lush green hill on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Shenzhen, next to Hong Kong.

The factory was built just a few years ago and employs 3,000 people, many of them from poor inland provinces such as Hunan and Hubei.

Samuel Wai from Mainland Headwear
Mr Wai says Mainland Headwear abides by China's labour laws

Many of these could be seen walking passed the area's snack bars, street stalls and restaurants on Sunday afternoon as they made their way back to work.

Speaking just outside the factory gates, production director Samuel Wai looked astounded at the suggestion that his firm was anything less than a model factory.

"We follow all the government regulations here so I'm not sure where these complaints have come from," said Mr Wai who, like his company, is based in Hong Kong.

"Employees here enjoy a very good living environment and working conditions."

As he spoke, he pointed out several apartment buildings where, he said, workers had both hot water and air conditioning. There were no more than six to a room, he added.

"I live in one of them myself, and eat breakfast in the canteen," added Mr Wai, whose listed firm has won the right to produce hats with the Olympic insignia on them.

He denied that workers were coached about how to answer inspectors' questions, one of the charges made in the report, entitled No Medal for the Olympics on Labour Rights.

And he added that workers do not have to forfeit at least a month's pay if they want to leave, as the report also claimed.

He did, however, decline to let the BBC into the factory to talk to workers themselves.

'No rest days'

But there were others, reluctant to talk, who told a different story.

One 35-year-old man, who did not want to give his name, is desperate to leave, but stays because he has no other job to go to.

Huddled under an umbrella to protect himself against a sudden downpour, he said employees have to work long hours with no rest days.

He managed to take a day's holiday on Sunday because he was so tired - but only, he says, because he paid a fine of 50 Yuan (3.30).

The man has left his two daughters, aged three and four, in the care of his mother in Hubei while he works in Shenzhen with his wife.

He has not been home to see his children in two years.

"I'll go home when I am too tired and I cannot work anymore," added the employee, before trudging back to his lodgings through the rain.

But the BBC also spoke to some of the employees who live in the apartment buildings erected outside the factory walls, who agreed with Mr Wai's assessment of the firm as a good working environment.

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