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The Dollar General Deal: Report Alleges Abuses at Chinese Plants

Stephen Franklin

A Dollar General Store opens on September 12, 2009, in Clifton, New Jersey.

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You need to buy a few things, and you’re in a real hurry. Soap. Toothpaste. Stuff like that. You also don’t have a lot of money in your pocket.

So you run down to one of those stories where everything supposedly is a buck or less. These are the few retail stores apparently doing well nowadays, while others are croaking left and right.

But did you ever wonder, as you wandered the aisles, why they are so damn cheap?

A report released Tuesday on the work conditions and pay at some of the Chinese factories that provide some of the goods for Dollar General, one of the largest chains of the nation’s rock bottom retail stores, offers one explanation.

China Labor Watch investigated the conditions at four factories that supply appliances, plastic cookware, household goods and electronic items. The plants employ anywhere from several hundred to several thousand workers each.

Besides discovering that the workers earn between $147 to $190 each month, the group’s findings include allegations that:

Workers at the factories put in two to four hours of overtime daily, some never get off on weekends, and many have no safety masks or gloves for their jobs.

At one plant, workers were not paid overtime wages at all, although they put in the hours. At three plants, workers suffer from stiff fines - one of the plants docked workers a half an hour’s wage if they are only a minute late for the job.

Living conditions at three of the plants are particularly bad,” which translates into dark, cramped quarters that sometimes lack basic services such as hot water.

Getting U.S. companies to shoulder some responsibility for the conditions suffered by workers at their suppliers’ plants is no easy battle.

But it is much easier than it was a decade ago because of the investigative work of organizations like China Labor Watch. It has also become easier because companies usually don’t like the bad publicity that can haunt them or because they are worn down by the complaints of worker and human rights groups.

Yet many companies also shrug off the heat, saying they simply have no control over who makes their widgets in some grim sweatshop where workers’ lives are dirt cheap.

As for Dollar General, it doesn’t appear to be suffering the blues because shoppers are pinching their pennies, according to news reports. Its good fortunes have reportedly also benefitted its owners, led by the investment firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, who took over the firm in a leveraged buyout in 2007. The firm went public in November.

Indeed, the company recently reported that 2009 has turned out to be a very good year. It said sales were up for the third quarter and net income for the quarter had grown by 151 percent over the same time last year

Amazing isn’t it, what comes from a buck here and a buck there.

Amazing too what workers do to survive.

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A former labor writer for the Chicago Tribune, Stephen Franklin is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign School of Labor and Employment Relations.

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