This week, the National Labor Committee's report  into the scandalous conditions  at the KYE plant in Dongguan City, China, revealed that 16- and 17-year-old workers, often students on their three-month summer break, endure 82-hour work weeks, $.52-an-hour pay, atrocious working conditions, and, often, sexual harassment. KYE makes the Basic Optical Mouse for Microsoft and has used the plant since 2003.
Microsoft was swift to react to the report by the non-profit NLC, which has exposed sweat shop and rights-violating labor for 20 years (including well-known cases involving Target, Walmart, Gap, JCPenny, Target, Nike, and more). Microsoft has promised a full investigation into how KYE Systems Corp. treats its workers. But the NLC's director, Charles Kernaghan , says Microsoft, the third largest company in the world as of Q3 2009, has ignored the factory's abuses for almost seven years and failed to use its might to force compliance with basic human rights.
"I would believe that Microsoft would have people in the factory," he told FastCompany.com in a phone interview yesterday. Quality control reps from Microsoft would have been perfectly positioned to witness KYE's labor practices--its preference for employing young girls whom it considered easy to discipline and control, Kernaghan said.
It would be aware of punishments for workers that include cleaning the plant's toilets when they make a mistake, sexual harassment that reportedly went on between security guards and the employees, washrooms that were nothing more than a bucket of hot water and a sponge, temperatures inside the plant that climbed to 86 degrees during summer, with the air conditioning only turned on when foreigners came to visit.
Yesterday, FastCompany.com contacted Microsoft representatives to ask about representatives in the factory and how much the company knew in the seven years it outsourced production to KYE. They responded, promising they were gathering information, presumably to provide answers. Another email sent this morning, however, went unanswered until a representative alerted us to this response on Microsoft's blog .
Kernaghan says he expects Microsoft to downplay the working conditions in China, but says this is a bigger story than Microsoft and KYE. "This is really a battle as to what models of manufacturing are going to win out. And right now, I think Microsoft is putting all of its bets on China. And they are very comfortable with teenagers working in a factory 15 hours a day for $.52 an hour, housed in miserable dormitories. We're being confronted with how the world is going to operate."
Asked how this report ranks among the findings he's unearthed in two decades of international labor investigations, the Brooklyn-born, one-time psychology professor who has exposed P. Diddy, Reebok, Kathie Lee and other celebrities for using sweatshop or other unregulated labor said, "I think what makes these cases so explosive and miserable is China--the fact that you're talking about the largest exporter in the world, and this is what's coming down the line. China will sacrifice those workers. They're not worth a thing to them--and that's a very frightening model for Microsoft to be behind."