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Originally published April 14, 2010 at 4:35 PM | Page modified April 15, 2010 at 2:55 PM

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Microsoft's vendor accused of using underpaid teen labor in China

A U.S. labor group said this week that Microsoft has been contracting with a sweatshop in China that hires teenagers to make Microsoft mice for 65 cents an hour, 12 hours a day.

Seattle Times technology reporter

A U.S. labor group said this week that Microsoft has been contracting with a sweatshop in China that hires teenagers to make Microsoft mice for 65 cents an hour, 12 hours a day.

The National Labor Committee, based in Pittsburgh, researched, wrote and released the report "China's Youth Meet Microsoft" on Tuesday. It says workers have been working under these conditions since 2007.

Microsoft responded in a statement Wednesday that it is "committed to the fair treatment and safety of workers employed by our vendors." The company said it was aware of the report and has started an investigation.

"We take these claims seriously, and we will take appropriate remedial measures in regard to any findings of vendor misconduct," the company said.

Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the organization and author of the report, said of his group's findings: "It sounded like torture. The frantic pace on the assembly line, same motion over and over for the 12 hours or more of work they did."

Kernaghan estimated that as many as 5,000 people worked in the factory, located in Dongguan, and owned by Taiwanese company KYE. While the factory also has female workers between 18 and 25 years old, the factory also hired about 1,000 16- and 17-year-olds on summer work-study programs from high schools, the report said.

The workers live in dormitories, and their meals are deducted from their wages, which brings their hourly wage to 52 cents, Kernaghan said. He estimated that the Microsoft mouse-ssembly line made 2,000 units a shift, with 20 to 30 workers on the line, and he calculated that each worker made 9 cents per mouse. In 2009, workers reported to the labor group that they were working 83 hours per week.

The National Labor Committee worked on the report for more than six months and cites interviews with anonymous factory workers. The report also has photos of Microsoft mice from a KYE assembly line.

The report says workers estimate Microsoft accounts for 30 percent of the work in the factory. KYE also makes products for Hewlett-Packard, Kernaghan said.

Kernaghan said Microsoft has laws to enforce copyright and intellectual property of its software, but has not brought the same enforcement to international labor laws. "We have a system that is skewed where the product is protected but human being is not," he said.

In its statement, Microsoft said noncompliance with the company's vendor requirements could lead to "corrective action plans, remedial training, certification requirements, cessation of further business awards until corrective actions are instituted, and termination of the business relationship."

The National Labor Committee is a nonprofit that works on human-rights and labor issues internationally. In the past, it has pressured companies such as Gap, Kathie Lee Gifford and Disney, Kernaghan said.

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com

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