by Stefanie Kern
Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, lived a kind old inventor. He bubbled with creativity and everyone loved him. Yet, he was unhappy. He felt out of place in the cold, dark world around him. So, the inventor decided to create a kingdom of his own, a Magic Kingdom. More than a fairy tale, this is Disneyland, the self-proclaimed “Happiest Place on Earth” magically created by Walter Elias Disney eighty-three years ago. Starting with nothing more than a few cartoon drawings, a used suit and forty dollars, the company grew from making a few hundred dollars to the largest entertainment empire on Earth.
When businessmen across the nation were asked to select the ten greatest American businessmen from the past, Walt Disney came in second only to Henry Ford (Flower). Walt Disney’s contagious enthusiasm for Disneyland theme park exploded into an enterprise including movies, TV, sports, radio, cruises, and consumer products. In fact, Disney is one of the few enormously successful businesses that developed from the vision and work of only a few people. Walt Disney pioneered a business that put Mickey on the shelves from Brooklyn to Beijing.
But let’s take a behind-the-ears look at the company’s squeaky-clean image. Acutely conscious of public relations, Disney quickly sweeps every unusual incident under the Magic Carpet. Many blindly protect Disney’s magically enchanting image so few can actually discover the truth of the company’s tainted corporate citizenship.
Disney is an international icon for children where dreams come true. Even though it is listed on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, the corporation has yet to realize the dream of producing Disney brand products without sweatshop labor. The child labor used in the sweatshops is a far cry from the moral family image they try to portray. Disney condones worker abuse in the many Asian factories it contracts to produce Disney toys, books, and clothes. Few could fathom associating Princess Jasmine pajamas with crushed fingers and a wage of twelve cents per hour. It is difficult to picture workers in Haiti who stitch clothing with happy Disney characters but are not even paid enough to afford the “bare necessities, the simple bare necessities.” The laundry list of oppressive conditions in the 50,000 Mickey “Mouschwitz” factories includes unbearable heat, long hours, and unpaid, forced overtime. These practices are not in line with what founder Walt Disney had in mind.
Sadly, Disney does not sweat over these sweatshop allegations. The company denies these accusations and refers to their code of conduct for manufacturers. Their system of self-monitoring the factories, however, is a scam, as Disney refuses unannounced independent audits. Disney’s system allows owners the chance to clean up factories and intimidate workers to remain silent before the inspectors arrive. In Hong Kong, workers are offered seventy yuan as reward if they help cover up the truth when questioned by auditors (The Associated Press). At one factory in China, there are five accidents a week in which people have lost their fingers and palms that largely remain unreported. Instead of fixing the machines, the factory hires new workers. In Bangladesh, speaking is prohibiting during the fourteen-hour workdays. In Haiti, Disney factories employ workers under the legal age and sexual harassment is common (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior). Disney heinous practice of exploiting workers and being unresponsive to human rights concerns cannot remain unnoticed.
Where is Robin Hood? Michael Eisner, the previous CEO of Disney, earned $203
million in 1993. This number represents about 325,000 times the salary of
Haitian workers. If a typical worker in Haiti worked full-time, six days a week
sewing clothes for Disney, it would take her approximately 1,040 years to earn
what Michael Eisner earned in one day in 1993, the National Labor Committee
reported. Instead of imitating their own evil Disney villains, the company can
change. There are ways to promote workers rights, practice fair monitoring of
conditions, implement an accessible complaints procedure, and make the company
more transparent. It is time to awaken conscience of Disney, the so-called
Sleeping Beauty, and put a halt to the supplier’s abusive operations who hurt
their workers by making them used cursed spinning wheels.
Exposing the unacceptable working conditions is no longer news. The news itself may not even be as accurate as we would like to believe it to be, since Disney also uses its political influence to maintain consolidated control of media outlets. Much like Jafar’s manipulation through mind control, Disney’s ABC ownership allows the company to naturally influence any major news stories. Despite the lack of media attention, Disney and other brand name companies should be more concerned with how suppliers operate abroad. When the governments that are supposed to enforce labor laws and protect their citizens have proven to be uncaring, corrupt or inept, global brands must step in to protect the workers. Disney cannot ignore these problems and keep singing “It’s a Small World After All.” Otherwise, Disney’s reputation, brand and profitability will be severely damaged.
Companies have found that improved working conditions in their supply chain can benefit business and public relations. Factories that treat their workers fairly are more likely to be productive and ship goods promptly. In addition, if people are treated with dignity, they are less likely to leave the factory. By reducing turnover, the company can certainly improve quality. If these changes are made, Disney can finally follow their own Aladdin story and dazzle workers with the “whole new world.”
Flower, Joe. Prince of the Magic Kingdom: Michael Eisner and the Re-making of Disney. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1991
The Associated Press. Survey shows Disney suppliers in southern China underpay, overwork employees. (Asia-Pacific: International Herald Tribune, September 10, 2006)
Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehavior. Disney’s Sad Sweatshop
History (BuzzFlash News Alert, September 11, 2006)