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No child's play - workers and the deadly toys
Frontline article by Hsiao-Hung Pai, December 2007
Just as people are getting ready for Christmas shopping, tens of millions of toys have been found to pose a health hazard - not only to children in the West, but also to those producing them in China.
US toy maker Mattel - the largest toy company in the world - recalled 172,000 Fisher Price toys in November after several children choked on small detachable parts. The company has also, for the fourth time, recalled large quantities of toys due to high levels of lead in their paint. Mattel had already recalled nearly 20 million toys, and in September it withdrew 844,000 toys from its Barbie brand.
Mattel's toys are manufactured by companies such as the Chinese Sunyick Plastic Products company, which employs 5,000 people.
Li Qiang, organiser of China Labour Watch, set out to investigate the conditions in toy factories such as Sunyick's. He was trained in law and has been a labour rights campaigner since the 1990s. "I decided to go and work in factories in Guangdong, to get a real picture of working conditions," he says. "I was shocked by the harsh conditions and long working hours. Workers are paying a high price for the economic development of China. They are the ones who built wealth, yet their interests have not been voiced."
Qiang has monitored working conditions at toy factories in the southern industrial city of Shenzhen since 1997. A city of 12 million, Shenzhen has a manual workforce consisting mostly of migrants from the rural hinterland; the majority enjoy no legal rights in the city or access to healthcare. The basic wage in the city is 26p an hour. "Some toy factories where workers endured excessive overworking and had no day off at all were producing for multinational corporations like Wal-Mart and Disney," says Qiang.
Companies cut corners and maximise profits by reducing costs on the manufacturers in Shenzhen. Consequently workers work in subhuman conditions. "Workers are required to sign blank contracts, with the content filled in by the company later," says Qiang. "They're mostly given temporary six-month contracts so they can be made redundant during off-peak season. During peak season workers are forced to work 11 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, and only allowed one day off every two weeks. The electronic department has, on average, a 14-hour day, with one day off per month. Overtime is often unpaid and workers are forced to live in company dormitories, sharing a room with 12 people and paying a monthly accommodation fee as well as an expensive meal plan. They can be dismissed without notice.
"They are subjected to high health and safety risks. There's no modern ventilation system. The oil paint department has the worst working conditions - chemicals can be spread metres away from the building. Workers aren't provided with necessary safety equipment to avoid chemical poisoning.
"The overworking is a huge risk in these factories. In August a female worker at Sunyick fainted and died. She was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, non-stop." Work-related deaths in such factories are common in China. According to China Labour Bulletin, there were 3,946 workplace deaths in the first half of 2007.
"In Shenzhen the local labour department has been another barrier to the campaigning against these factories," adds Qiang.
Legislation that might provide basic protection to workers, such as the Labour Contract Law enacted in July as a result of escalating social unrest in China, has faced opposition from multinationals who want a union-free China. The new law, to come into effect next year, will allow for collective bargaining between the state's unions and employers.
The US Chamber of Commerce, representing multinationals like Ford, General Electric, Microsoft and Nike, have said, "We believe it might have negative effects on China's investment environment."
Mattel's CEO paid himself $7.3 million in 2006 - 6,533 times more than he paid his workers in China. The corporation has declined to comment on its working conditions.
"Labour NGOs need to work harder to apply pressure and challenge policies," says Qiang, "But in the long term, the way we can challenge these multinational corporations is for the workers to have independent unions - currently illegal in China. Workers want to have their own organisation to take up the fight."
Li Qiang left China in 2000 as his activism drew attention from the local government, putting him at risk. He set up China Labour Watch the following year in New York.
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