Robert A. Bruno

CHICAGO (WOMENSENEWS)–Last-minute Valentine’s Day shoppers looking for a bargain will have no problem finding a sweet little love token.

A quick walk down the aisles of a drugstore in Chicago reveals a plush teddy bear holding a glittery heart for $1.99, a scented heart candle for $1.99 and a heart-shaped box of chocolates for $2.99.

While these expenditures may seem heartwarming, some global-trade watchers see them in a much colder light.

All the gifts were made in China, the rising economic powerhouse whose factories, says Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, employ a predominantly female work force. The vast majority of China’s factory workers are young migrant women from rural areas of China who aren’t citizens of the province in which they work, he adds.

As Chinese goods compete with factories in other rapidly industrializing countries, Robert A. Bruno, associate professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago, sees competitive pressures building on a predominantly female global low-wage work force that ranges from Africa to Mexico. “Now, everyone is competing against poor women in China,” he said.

Meanwhile, the people buying such goods are often women who shop for low-priced items at discount stores because they need to stretch ever-tightening budgets.

“It’s almost as if the world’s female lower and working classes are eating one another,” Bruno said. “It’s like a Kafkaesque play, in that we’re eating our own hearts and souls. Yet there seems to be no way to stop this chain of events because there’s so much desperate poverty in the world.”

Bruno said that shoppers concerned about overseas labor conditions should lobby for an international living wage, penalties for countries that ignore such a wage law and a European Union-like model that imposes sanctions on countries that disobey labor standards.

Legislation, he says, is also needed to repeal tax incentives that reward companies for moving work to developing countries and to protect workers overseas in the same way that treaties now protect corporations’ overseas properties and profits.

Little Choice But to ‘Pinch Pennies’

Despite growing U.S. recognition of unfair labor practices abroad, Bruno said low-income people in the United States have little choice but to pinch pennies and seek out low-cost goods at discount outlets, particularly in communities with few retailers.

Discount stores have been gobbling up market-share from higher-cost, mid-tier department stores in the past 15 years. Discount stores’ total yearly sales were $336 billion in 2005, up from $76 billion in 1989, according to research by the U.S. Census Bureau and Retail Forward, a Columbus, Ohio, retail consultancy. Department store sales over the same period were comparatively stagnant at $87 billion last year versus $85 billion in 1989.

Meanwhile, income disparities continue to widen in the United States. The average after-tax income of the top 1 percent of the U.S. population more than doubled between 1979 and 2003, rising by $395,700 to reach $701,500, while the average after-tax income of the poorest fifth of the population rose by a relatively paltry 4.4 percent, or $600, to $14,100 during the same time period, according to a joint report issued Jan. 26 by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute, Washington-based public policy research groups.

U.S. imports from China totaled $196.7 billion in 2004, an increase of 29 percent from the previous year, making China the second-largest exporter of goods to the United States behind Canada’s $256 billion export total, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Trade watchers declined to quantify what proportion of Valentine’s Day products sold this year come from China, saying the products were too diverse and the event was too seasonal to track. But U.S. consumers will spend $13.7 billion to celebrate Valentine’s Day and women, on average, will each spend $68.64, according to research by the National Retail Federation, a Washington-based retail trade association.

Earning 34 Cents an Hour

Factory workers who make holiday cards in China typically earn 34 cents an hour, or 20 percent below China’s legal minimum wage, according to a December 2005 joint report issued by China Labor Watch and the National Labor Committee, nonprofit groups based in New York. Many workers were forced to work 40 hours of overtime per week.

Wal-Mart: The Face of Twenty-First-Century Capitalism

“Gross violations of Chinese labor law occur all the time,” said history professor Lichtenstein, who is also editor of “Wal-Mart: The Face of Twenty-First Century Capitalism,” published by New Press in 2006. He cited protests by workers who failed to get paid, workers threatened by bosses with firing if they didn’t work extended overtime hours and living arrangements over which workers have no choice.

Lichtenstein toured factories in China in September 2005 and found female laborers living in spare dormitories and sleeping 8 to 12 in a room on bunk-beds. The factory wages, he said, are an attractive incentive to residents of rural villages and many workers send much of what they earn back home.

“When the women want to get married or have a child, it’s very difficult to stay in the dorm,” Lichtenstein said. If a woman can no longer live in the factory-mandated conditions, the factory will revoke her residency permit, forcing her to return to her home village.

Lichtenstein said he found that during “rush” times before Valentine’s Day or other holidays, workers would work 60 to 80 hours a week for up to a month at a time.

Wal-Mart Imports Billions from China

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer with $285.2 billion in sales last year, accounts for almost 10 percent of the total imports from China to the United States.

Beth Keck, director of international corporate affairs for Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., said factories in China that have contracts with international retailers such as Wal-Mart have “much better conditions than local factories that don’t come under anyone’s eye.”

The fact that women live in dorms is not unusual and in many cases is typical of a developing country, Keck said. “You have to approach it from where a person is coming from,” she said. “China is emerging from economic stagnation from 20 years ago.”

Keck said Wal-Mart stopped doing business with 108 suppliers in 2004, the latest figures available, for a variety of reasons, including their failure to adhere to a code of conduct for clients that Wal-Mart posts on its Web sites.

“In short, we have no desire to do business with any factory being run illegally or unethically, and we feel that our program is helping to improve working conditions and create economic opportunity for workers around the world,” Wal-Mart said in a Web statement about its overseas labor policies.

Sandra Guy, a 22-year veteran journalist, is a business reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times. She has covered business, politics, education, technology and peace issues, and served as a former president of the Chicago chapter of the Association for Women Journalists.

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For more information:

China Labor Watch:

Wal-Mart Watch: