Lawmakers opposed to ornaments from China

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(Host) It’s a warm and fuzzy feeling to hang up colorful decorations on the Christmas tree.

But some Christmas ornaments are made in Chinese sweatshops – and now Vermont lawmakers say they want to stop the practice. Elizabeth Wynne Johnson reports.

(Johnson) The revelation comes from the National Labor Committee, an advocacy group based in New York. It says that one Chinese factory forces its employees to work 15 hours a day, seven days a week to make Christmas ornaments.

The workers are paid less than the Chinese minimum wage. Some are as young as twelve-years-old. This company is contracted by Wal-mart and its products are sold all over the US.

(Sounds of Wal-mart)

(Johnson) At a Wal-mart store just outside Washington, D-C, a giant section of shelf space is dedicated to Christmas goodies. Nearly all the ornaments are labeled "Made in China."

(Sounds of Christmas music)

(Johnson) Shopper Mike Salmon roams the aisles. He’s looking for ornaments that are just the right colors for his two Christmas trees.

(Salmon) "One is blue and gold and the other is silver and white."

(Johnson) Salmon says he knows most Christmas ornaments are made overseas, and may be produced under dubious conditions. But says there’s nothing he can do.

(Salmon) "They are produced in sweatshops in Targets. They are produced in sweatshops in Kmart. That’s the way they are produced."

(Johnson) Ninety percent of the Christmas ornaments sold in the U.S. are made in China. The Chinese company under fire is one of the largest producers. It has 8,000 employees and supplies many American and European firms. And under current law, U.S. companies are not liable for the conduct of their overseas suppliers.

Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders says U.S. trade policies need to change.

(Sanders) "So that companies start to invest in the United States of America rather than exploiting small children around the world."

(Johnson) Sanders and seventeen other Senators have introduced a bill to bar sweatshop products from coming into the U.S. It would allow the government to punish companies that import those goods. And U.S. producers to sue competitors selling those products.

More than 100 House members sponsored a similar bill. Vermont Democratic Congressman Peter Welch is one of them.

(Welch) "It’s for two reasons. One we want to make sure we are fair to our companies so that they are not in a competitive disadvantage. Two, we want to stand up for human rights."

(Johnson) Welch says U.S. companies would take a harder look at their overseas suppliers if they face the possibility of penalty and lawsuits.

(Welch) "It’s very important that our major corporations take the initiative to make certain that their contractors and subcontractors in foreign countries are meeting labor and environmental standards."

(Johnson) Critics of the proposal say the legislation means well but will make things worse. John Berlau studies entrepreneurship at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington. He says the legislation is broad and vague, for example, it doesn’t define "sweatshop products."

(Berlau) "It makes law in this area unclear — fertile ground for trial lawyers. And a small distributor or a small retailer may find themselves caught up in this and may be discouraged from going business and that will hurt entrepreneurship and job creation in our country."

(Johnson) Congress has wrapped up this year’s business and lawmakers are heading home for a month-long recess. Many of them probably have trees decorated with ornaments made in China. Senator Sanders says that will only remind them to support his bill banning sweatshop imports next year.

For VPR News, I’m Elizabeth Wynne Johnson on Capitol Hill.

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