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Every day, companies and people across the world print and copy materials using an assortment of printers, copiers, and other equipment. Arguably, the most important part of these machines are the ink and toner cartridges they employ. China has established an industry that manufactures millions of cheap ink and toner cartridges that are worth billions of dollars. Rarely do we ever spare a thought as to how these printing products were created and how the people manufacturing these products are treated. China Labor Watch, however, is aware of tens of thousands of workers toiling silently in Chinese factories to produce these cheap cartridges.
After receiving reports of labor violations, China Labor Watch investigated China’s vast third-party ink and toner cartridge industry, which is centered primarily in and around Zhuhai, China, a small port city on the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong Province. Our investigation has discovered just the tip of the iceberg of the violation of Chinese factory workers’ rights and interests within the printing industry. To highlight the poor working conditions of the factory workers in the printer consumables manufacturing industry, China Labor Watch dispatched undercover investigators into two factories during the fall of 2021. While working undercover at two factories for a period of multiple weeks, our investigators interviewed 39 workers at the Zhuhai National Resources & Jingjie Printing Technology factory and 47 workers at Zhuhai Maetone Infotech factory to gather the evidence and data within this report.
Four of the most serious rights violations uncovered within China Labor Watch’s investigation are highlighted below:
1. Blatant violations and exploitation of Chinese labor law
We identified many labor practices that violate Chinese law, including but not limited to issuing false pay stubs, failure to purchase Social Insurance, insufficient health and safety training, age discrimination, excessive overtime, no overtime pay, no paid holiday leave, and an insufficient number of days off per week. The specific chapters of the Safety Production Law of the People’s Republic of China that China Labor Watch suspects have been violated by Zhuhai National Resources & Jingjie Printing Technology Co., Ltd and/or Zhuhai Maetone Infotech Co., Ltd are included in the full report.
Not only do these two factories violate the law, but they also exploit legal loopholes and lax regulatory mechanisms to further violate Chinese workers’ rights and interests. For example, if a factory is proven to have failed to pay workers according to Chinese law, the Human Resources and Social Security Bureau will fine and order the factory to pay workers a legal wage. However, in this instance, “according to the law” simply means the wage should not be lower than the minimum wage, not that the factory must conform with legal requirements for increased pay during overtime and time off. The minimum wage of Zhuhai where both factories are located is 1720 RMB a month. Even though the Maetone factory issues a false pay stub to workers and does not apply the required overtime pay to calculate wages, the monthly wages paid to workers at the Maetone factory is actually above the legal minimum, making legal enforcement difficult and unlikely. This built-in legal loophole limits the government’s ability to enforce its own laws, which allows factories to force extreme overtime hours on workers so long as workers receive some compensation for those hours, regardless of whether their pay is in accordance with the legal overtime minimum wage. This creates a vicious cycle of labor abuse wherein the factory fraudulently underpays workers their owed overtime pay, and in order to recoup this withheld overtime pay, workers are subtly coerced to work more hours and give up their legal right to time off. The most disheartening thing is that the workers themselves become unwitting participants in their exploitation. The Maetone factory is willing to violate Chinese law and schedule workers to work on legally mandated rest days and for an excessive amount of overtime hours, and in order to ensure workers’ silence, it offers a paltry sum for these extended and illegal hours. The workers however often have no choice but to accept any additional wages, even if they are illegally reduced. Zhuhai Maetone Infotech Co., Ltd has intentionally created this system of punishments and incentives to increase corporate profits by exploiting workers’ rights and interests.
Furthermore, while not explicitly illegal, both Zhuhai National Resources & Jingjie Printing Technology Co., Ltd and Zhuhai Maetone Infotech Co., Ltd present partially blank labor contracts for workers to sign in order to start work. The worker does not know the contents of the agreed upon terms and conditions of their own employment when they sign. It is a common practice among factories in China to download labor contract templates from local government websites with blank spaces to be filled in for information on wages, job content, holidays, etc. However, rather than filling in the required information before presenting it to the worker, both factories gave workers a copy of the incomplete contract template and only asked the worker fill in their personal information. Only after obtaining workers’ legally binding agreement to an incomplete labor contract did management at both Zhuhai National Resources & Jingjie Printing Technology and Zhuhai Maetone Infotech actually write down the salary, job content, holidays and important other terms and conditions. Workers at both factories given vital information on their own employment before they start work.
2. Multiple safety hazards including the risk for a combustible dust explosion
Most concerningly, our investigator identified what is likely a dust exposure risk to workers in the toner powder filling positions at the Zhuhai Maetone Infotech factory. Our investigator discovered a notice sent by the factory statting that there might be dust contamination. We could not identify the precise type of toner powder and therefore cannot determine the material’s ignitable, corrosive, reactive, and/or toxic properties. China Labor Watch cannot determine the health risk to workers who are exposed to this toner dust at the Maetone factory. Further adding to the risk Maetone workers face, toner dust is a combustible material and can spark what is called a combustible dust explosion. According to OSHA’s Hazard Communication Guidance for Combustible Dusts, a combustible dust explosion or fire can cause catastrophic loss of life, injuries, and destruction of buildings. In many of these incidents, workers and managers were unaware of the potential for dust explosions or failed to recognize the serious nature of dust explosion hazards. Earlier this year in August, a Konica Minolta toner production plant in Japan experienced a combustible dust fire with toner dust serving as the ignition source. In May 2018, yet another toner dust explosion occurred at the Close the Loop printer cartridge recycling facility in Kentucky.
To prevent a similar incident from occurring, Zhuhai Maetone Infotech must act urgently and identify the health risk to workers exposed to toner dust, as well as evaluate the factory’s risk for a toner dust fire and explosion. First, China Labor Watch recommends that Zhuhai Maetone Infotech Co., Ltd review previous incidences of toner dust explosions, the above-mentioned OSHA Hazard Communication Guidance for Combustible Dusts, and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s page on Combustible Dust Safety. Secondly, we recommend that Maetone Infotech take measures to control dust, eliminate ignition sources, and limit the potential effects of explosions to minimize deaths, injuries, and damage to property. And thirdly, we recommend that Maetone Infotech develop a written hazard communication program and provide information and training to workers about the hazardous dusts and chemicals in their workplace.
In fact, new workers at the Zhuhai National Resources & Jingjie Printing Technology factory are only provided 30 minutes to an hour of workplace safety and hazards training. This “training” solely consisted of asking workers to copy prewritten answers from a safety test which included no specific explanation about environmental, health, and/or safety aspects of the job; this clearly is inadequate to competently train new employees on the workplace hazards and safety risks inherent in a manufacturing environment. Employees at the Zhuhai Maetone Infotech did not receive any education and training on production safety, clearly violating the law. Both factories do not have an environmental health and safety committee, nor do they tell workers whether they are exposed to hazardous substances. Potentially hazardous waste containing ink and toner is improperly disposed of at the Zhuhai National Resources & Jingjie Printing Technology factory.
Most Maetone workers reported that they were in physical pain during the first week of work, because they were not yet used to such a heavy workload. One worker injured his hands (skin abrasion and joint pain), because had to use the same fingers to twist in screws 1,300 times a day, and yet, our investigator could not locate any first aid kit or emergency medical supplies in either factory.
3. No worker representation
According to Article 7 of China’s Labor Law, workers have the right to participate or organize a union, yet neither factories have a union nor any form of worker representation. In fact, there are no official channels for resolving workplace issues. Factories have an interest in not providing worker representation or official channels to communicate grievances as management is legally required to negotiate with worker representatives to extend working hours. As both Zhuhai National Resources & Jingjie Printing Technology and Zhuhai Maetone Infotech factories do not have any form of independent worker representation, there is no functional check on their power. Workers simply must go to their team leader when something is wrong. However, workers at the Maetone factory reported that all team leaders are either relatives or friends with the high-level factory management, and on some production lines with a lower hourly wage, team leaders will verbally abuse workers who go to the bathroom too many times or work too slowly. Therefore, team leaders do not serve as independent communicators of the needs and issues that workers face.
Both factories also do not have worker hotlines to anonymously report issues and complaints to management. Clearly, communication between workers and management is not a priority for either Zhuhai National Resources & Jingjie Printing Technology Co., Ltd or Zhuhai Maetone Infotech Co., Ltd.
4. Demoralizing work environment
It is hard to say that employees of Zhuhai National Resources & Jingjie Printing Technology and Zhuhai Maetone Infotech have a good life when they work 66 hours a week, 11 hours a day, and 6 days a week. And when orders increase, managers require employees to work 13 days before they can have just one day off. Workers at these two factories are constantly exhausted. There is virtually no time to go to the restroom or get a drink of water with the stringent production quotas. Workers are too tired to enjoy any leisure activity when life consists solely of working 11 hours a day, sleeping, and then going back to work. Some workers are so exhausted they can do nothing except eat and sleep on their day off, and most workers simply purchase all their living necessities online to save time and energy. To add insult to injury, all Maetone factory workers’ salaries were lowered because of Covid-19.
Simply put, the demands that Jingjie Printing Technology and Maetone Infotech place on their employees have pushed workers to the fringe of Chinese society. They simply do not have enough time to participate in daily life. Workers told China Labor Watch that they want the factory to raise the basic wage so that they don’t have to work overtime so desperately just to make ends meet. However, research done by Actionable Intelligence indicates that overall pricing for third-party supplies has been trending downward for the past 20 years. The effects of this trend can be measured in workers’ decreasing quality of life.
As shown above, China Labor Watch’s investigations have revealed many labor and human rights violations, and a chart summarizing theses rights violations can be located in the following section. Only with cooperation between the Chinese state and provincial authorities, the printing consumables manufacturing industry, and the factories owned and operated by Zhuhai National Resources & Jingjie Printing Technology and Zhuhai Maetone Infotech will we be able to protect workers’ rights and interests by eliminating abusive and unethical labor practices from the printing supply chain.
We call on these two companies to improve working conditions by first committing to follow Chinese Labor Law in its entirety by giving workers their legal rights to paid leave, robust safety training, overtime hours within legal limits, and increased pay during overtime hours. Zhuhai National Resources & Jingjie Printing Technology and Zhuhai Maetone Infotech management should also ensure that workers are shown their labor contracts with all relevant provisions clearly written at the time of signing, that workers are automatically given a copy of this contract, and that these two companies adhere to all the provisions agreed upon in the legally binding labor contract. Both companies must develop a written hazard communication program and provide information and training to workers about the safety hazards in their workplace to prevent deaths and injuries. These factories must facilitate the selection of independent worker representatives, must provide anonymous channels for worker complaints, and must improve listening and communication between management and workers.
We call upon companies in the printing industry and online marketplaces who source from these factories to make a genuine commitment to improving working conditions by identifying all contractors and subcontractors within the manufacturing process, requiring all manufacturing parties to uphold clear labor standards, conduct regular undercover investigations within these factories, and enforce these regulations when broken. Online marketplaces must increase the regulatory oversight of companies know to violate the law and violate workers’ rights and ban repeat offenders from using their platforms to profit from suffering. We hope that the printing industry and major online retailers will join us and seriously consider these recommendations, as we all want to address the rights violations occurring in the printing electronics supply chain.
And finally, we call on the Chinese government to strengthen the protection of Chinese workers rights and interests by prioritizing the enforcement of existing labor laws, by increasing the penalties for violating these laws to provide a real deterrence to companies, and by strengthening industry regulatory mechanisms.
Chart with Summary of Rights Violations
|Zhuhai Maetone Infotech Co., Ltd|