China firm: World Cup mascot row a political football

BEIJING - The Chinese company ordered to stop making World Cup mascots because of poor working conditions in their factory hit back at the accusations on Wednesday, saying they were victims of South African politicking.

FIFA's branding company Global Brands Group (GBG) said on Tuesday that Shanghai Fashion Plastic Products Co. Ltd (SFPPC) must halt production of the Zakumi, the tournament mascot, until it improved working conditions.

"The accusation that we used child labour, had excessively low pay and squalid conditions etc are completely made up," a spokeswoman for the company, who asked that her name not be used, told Reuters by telephone.

"It was only because of the high unemployment now in South Africa. Some of their politicians used our working conditions as an excuse," she added.

South African trade unions threatened to boycott the June 11-July 11 tournament after Britain's News of the World newspaper reported in January that the workers of the Shanghai-based company were forced to work in "pitiful" conditions.

GBG said an audit and inspection of the factory had found a number of ways in which it did not meet the code of conduct for FIFA contractors.

The company spokeswoman said they had already made changes since the GBG visit a month ago, and were waiting for the next inspection for approval of the improvements.

"We have been one of the best companies in China in terms of working environment, pay, abiding by the law etc. We definitely met the Chinese standards," she said.

"We are also very happy to take the advice of GBG on how to make improvements to reach international standards.

"But the reality is the pay and working conditions in China could never compete with those in Britain or Singapore."

The organisers of the Beijing Olympics banned a stationery company in Dongguan from making merchandise for the Games in 2007 after it was found to have employed under-age workers.