New research published last week by Choice in conjunction with Amnesty International illustrates two dichotomies in our relationship with China - the first in relation to Australian consumers, the second with respect to companies in the toy industry.
First, Australian consumers are uneasy about our trading relationship with China, even though we are buying more from China than ever before. In a survey of 1,000 consumers conducted for Choice and Amnesty International by independent research house Jones Donald Strategy Partners, China ranked lowest of 13 countries in terms of reputation for human rights, working conditions and environmental impacts.
The survey, conducted in February, pre-dates major incidents in Tibet and widespread protests during the Olympic torch relay.
Seventy-five per cent said China has a bad reputation on human rights, while just 6 per cent said it has a good reputation. Ordinary Australians are well-aware of the human rights shortcomings of the Chinese government, ranking it worse than countries such as India, Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, the USA and Australia.
Amnesty International has campaigned to increase pressure on China to improve freedom of speech standards through its Uncensor website, and has also drawn attention to China’s extensive use of the death penalty. Media exposure of high-profile cases such as Shi Tao and Hu Jia appears to be driving consumer doubts about China and about Chinese products.
Seventy-six per cent of survey participants considered China to have a poor reputation with regard to working conditions there, while 71 per cent said they associate China with bad environmental practices. On both measures China ranked worst of the 13 countries surveyed.
Yet it seems consumers are finding it easier to say they have concerns about China than to act on these concerns. More than 40 per cent of those surveyed said they consider human rights as either quite important or very important in making their purchasing decision. But less than 5 per cent ranked human rights in the top two or three factors used in making their decision.
It is hard to argue that price and performance should not be the critical factors behind our purchases, particularly in times of rising interest rates and increasing prices of food and petrol. However, if we say human rights are important to us, should we be doing more to act on this belief?
The second dichotomy comes from industry itself. Sectors importing goods from China had a miserable 2007, enduring a series of product recalls and scandals. Toys were perhaps those found most seriously wanting, with massive product recalls by a number of household brands.
Independent testing of 30 toys by Choice published in November found nearly half failed basic safety standards - mostly because they could easily break and pose a choking hazard for small children.
Seventy-five per cent of toys sold in Australia are made in China. NGOs have shown that working conditions (PDF 1.01MB) in some Chinese toy factories are poor. These factories make products for major Western brands, but are claimed to have dangerous work environments, dangerous living conditions, and very low wages as unfair penalties are applied and overtime is not paid.
Suppliers of toys say they are committed to learning the lessons of the major toy recalls and scandals of 2007. Yet some of the biggest manufacturers and distributors did not respond to a survey commissioned on behalf of Choice and Amnesty International. No response was received from Mattel (which recalled 18 million toys in 2007 including brands like Barbie dolls), from RC2 (which recalled Thomas the Tank Engine toys found to be contaminated with lead paint) or from Mega Brands (which recalled popular Magnetix magnet toys).
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