Toy Story in China

If Barbie Could Talk.

Revolutionary Worker #1166, September 15, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org

"Every day we work in temperatures that can climb to over 100 degrees. The molding machines are noisy and hot. The air is filled with a strong chemical smell. I have to repeat the same motions, over and over, open the machine, put in the plastic, press the machine, take out the plastic... A lot of us can't stand the heat, the smell and the noise, and some of us faint."

Worker from the molding department at a toy company in Guangdong, China whose main clients are Hasbro and Wal-Mart (quoted in "Toys of Misery: A Report on the Toy Industry of China," National Labor Committee, January 2002)

"We sleep very little. We don't get back to the dormitory until after midnight. There are only two bathrooms on the floor and it can take three hours waiting in line before you can take a shower. Sometimes there's no water, and you can't take a shower. You can't wash your face or brush your teeth. We're all exhausted. They give you a half-day off after working around the clock. It isn't enough. Every once in a while you can get a day off, but then they don't allow you to stay in the dormitory. We have to go outside and sleep under the trees."

Worker from the trimming department in a large toy company in Guangdong that makes toys for Mattel/Fisher-Price, Hasbro, Tommy and other companies (quoted in "Toys of Misery: A Report on the Toy Industry of China")

*****

Toys are big business. In the United States $29.4 billion was spent on toys in 2000. 3.6 billion toys were purchased in the U.S. that year--76 million dolls, 349 million plush toys, 125 million action figures, 279 million hot wheels and matchbox cars, 88 million sporting good items.

More than half the toys sold in the United States are made in China. But the people buying these toys know very little--if anything--about the conditions under which these toys are produced. In recent months some reports have come out revealing the horrific working conditions of workers in toy factories in China whose blood, sweat and misery is being turned into profits for corporations like Mattel, Hasbro, Disney, McDonald's, WalMart and Toys R Us.

In 1949, the success of the Maoist revolution liberated China from foreign domination and exploitation. For over 25 years, China was a socialist country where society was run in the interests of the masses and people consciously worked to do away with all forms of exploitation and oppression. But in 1976, after the death of Mao Tsetung, a new government led by Deng Xiaoping came to power. Socialism was overthrown and capitalism was restored. The socialist path of getting rid of inequality and class divisions was reversed . Now, in capitalist China, the gap between the rich and poor, between the city and the countryside, between men and women--all the differences and inequalities in class society--have been and continue to be deepened and widened. The country is once again under the domination of foreign powers and China's leaders have opened the door wide for imperialist investors who dream of high profits to be made off of sweatshop conditions and cheap labor.

Foreign Domination

In 1979 China passed the Equity Joint Venture Law that opened the flood gates to foreign capital. Special Economic Zones were created where foreign corporations were given all sorts of benefits like tax breaks, access to the best land, infrastructure construction, and easing of environmental regulations.

From 1979 to the end of 1996, a total of $175 trillion has been invested in China by foreign entities. The rate of growth of foreign investment was extremely high during this period--an annual average increase of 57 percent per year. By 1996, inflows of direct foreign investments were 275 times 1983's level. By 1996, foreign-funded enterprises produced nearly half of total Chinese exports, a big leap from their share of less than 1 percent in 1985.

Following China's entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, the pace of foreign penetration and domination of China's economy will likely become even more rapid. These changes have also affected China's countryside, forcing hundreds of millions of Chinese peasants off of the land. (See sidebar).

China's capitalist rulers claim these policies are good for China and cite the growth of China's economy as proof. However, a look at the working conditions in China's toy industry reveals that while some, like huge corporations and capitalists in China, are making a killing, the vast majority of the people in China do not benefit from these changes and are literally dying just trying to survive.

Guolaosi: "Worked to Death"

19-year-old Li Chunmei died after working a 16-hour shift at the Bainan Toy Factory in Soonggang. She was a victim of what many Chinese call guolaosi . The phrase means "over- work death," and usually applies to young workers who suddenly collapse and die after working exceedingly long hours, day after day.

The Washington Post reported that on the night she died, Li Chunmei had been on her feet for nearly 16 hours--from 8 a.m. until midnight--running back and forth inside the Bainan Toy Factory, carrying toy parts from machine to machine.

This was the busy season, before Christmas, when orders peaked from Japan and the United States for the factory's stuffed animals. Long hours were mandatory, and at least two months had passed since Li and the other workers had gotten even one day off.

Less than a week before she died, Li begged her line manager for a day off, saying she was exhausted. The manager refused. Co-workers say Li then skipped a night shift to catch up on sleep and was docked three days' pay.

Lying on her bed that night, staring at the bunk above her, the slight 19-year-old complained she felt worn out, her roommates recalled. She was massaging her aching legs, and coughing, and told them she was hungry. The factory food was so bad, she said, she felt as if she had not eaten at all.

Her roommates had already fallen asleep when Li started coughing up blood. They found her in the bathroom a few hours later, curled up on the floor, moaning softly in the dark, bleeding from her nose and mouth. Someone called an ambulance, but Li died before it arrived.

According to the Post , "There has been little research on what causes these deaths, or how often they occur. Local journalists say many of them are never documented but estimate that dozens die under such circumstances every year in the Pearl River Delta area alone, the booming manufacturing region north of Hong Kong."

"Toys of Misery"

"The working hours are long and the pressure is terrible. My team has to finish 45,000 units every day. During the peak season we usually work until midnight every day. We have no day off. Now we are working a night shift, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., because of a big new order. The overnight work avoids the inspection of the client, but it makes us very tired. We can't help dozing off, and for that we are fined 30 to 40 rmb' ($3.62 to $4.83)."

Worker from the spraying department in a company that produces "Happy Meal" toys for McDonald's (quoted in "Toys of Misery: A Report on the Toy Industry of China")

"I've worked for more than a year now. The highest wages I've gotten was 700 rmb ($84.57) a month. I make an average of 500 to 600 rmb ($60.41 to $72.49) and 300 rmb ($36.25) during slack season. My husband also works in Shenzhen. My kids are left with my parents at home. My husband I come from a poor village where nothing grows on the land. We had to leave. We live separately because we can't afford to rent a flat."

Worker in a company that produces Cabbage Patch dolls, Star Wars figures, Barbie dolls and other toys (quoted in "Toys of Misery: A Report on the Toy Industry of China")

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A former labor organizer in China told the Washington Post about helping a group of 400 migrant workers in Shenzhen file a complaint about factory conditions, only to be turned away by local officials. "They said, `Go back to the factory.' They said, `You should know better. It's like this everywhere,' " he recalled.

"Toys of Misery," a January 2002 report by the U.S.-based National Labor Committee, examined conditions in eight large-scale toy companies with 19 factories and more than 50,000 workers located in the province of Guangdong. These factories produce toys for Hasbro, Mattel/ Fisher-Price, Tommy, Playskool, Disney, McDonald's, and Warner Bros.

The report found the following typical conditions, which were present at almost every toy factory they investigated:

 Mandatory daily shifts of 15 to 16 hours, 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. or 12:30 a.m.

 Some 20-hour, all-night shifts required, from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m. During one brutal five-day period at a plant producing stuffed toys for Mc Donald's, Disney and Warner Brothers, workers were forced to work virtually around the clock--including one shift of 27 straight hours.

 Seven-day work week, working 30 days a month.

 Workers fainting from the long hours and exhaustion.

 12 to 14 cents-an-hour wages; wages of $8.42 for a 72-hour work week.

 Workers cheated of 70 percent of the legal minimum wage owned them. Not a single worker interviewed was receiving the legal minimum wage.

 Handling toxic chemical glues, paints and solvents. Workers do not even know the names of the chemicals, let alone their health hazards. Workers are constantly dizzy, nauseous and on the verge of throwing up from the strong chemical paint odor which hangs thick in the factory air.

 Factory temperatures of more than 100 degrees, with the pressing department of one large factory producing for major U.S. toy companies registering a high of 109 degrees.

 Workers weakened by illness and pregnant workers, who are supposed to have legal protection, are forced to resign.

 16 workers share one small dorm room.

Over the past few years, hundreds of workers have perished in fires in China's toy factories and their dormitories. The Zhili Handicrafts factory was run by a Hong Kong-Chinese joint venture, on contract to produce the Italian "Chicco" brand of stuffed toys. The factory had no fire alarms, no sprinklers or fire hoses, and no fire escapes. The windows were fitted with heavy wire mesh and most exits were locked. After the fire, the bodies of 50 of the victims were found behind a locked gate. Raw materials and finished products partly blocked the staircase and exit that was open. In an effort to avoid adverse publicity after the fire, local authorities held 50 or so survivors as virtual prisoners for several days in a local hall, banning them from contacting friends or relatives.

At one factory, in the year 2000, 100 workers were found to have contracted Hepatitis B, a serious liver disease. In 2001, another 50 to 60 workers were also found to have the disease. Hepatitis B can be spread from sharp exposed edges at work and from close household contact such as an overcrowded dorm with 16 people sharing a small room.

All the infected workers were immediately fired without a single cent of compensation. They were told to take a vacation. One worker explained it like this: "They told you to take a rest--we all know it means you are fired."

Corporate Codes of Conduct: Hypocrisy and Superprofits

In order to keep working conditions away from public scrutiny, international corporations that do business in China refuse to release the names and addresses of the factories that produce their goods. These factories work as "independent contractors" for large U.S.-based corporations and other foreign companies.

To cover their ass, U.S. corporations doing business in China have adopted "corporate codes of conduct" that supposedly guarantee the rights of workers who make their goods. At a minimum these codes are supposed to ensure that the contractors that they do business with comply with local labor laws. However, the whole "contractor" set-up is just a hypocritical way for the U.S.-based corporations to profit from the misery of the Chinese workers while denying any responsibility for their brutal work conditions.

At one factory in China producing toys for Mattel, workers told an independent investigator that management was alerted to visits by corporate inspectors at least 10 days in advance. From that point on the factory would be cleaned and the workers told to lie should any of the auditors approach them. If they deviated from the "correct" response to any question, the workers knew they would be fired. Workers at several factories were required to sign falsified time cards and wage records. Local authorities caught one company keeping a double set of books in order to cover up the low wages and inhuman working conditions.

The big retailers and toy manufacturers know that it is virtually impossible to produce their goods at the price and in the time they demand and still adhere to the labor laws of China. They are the ones calling the shots. And they are the ones making huge profits off the misery of workers in China.

For example, in one instance, U.S. retailers demand that Chinese contractors produce 25,000 units of an electronic robot toy in two weeks. The toy retails for $76.99. The direct labor cost per unit is 54 cents. In another case manufacturers ordered 10,754 units of a toy watch that retails for $1.99 delivered in two weeks. The direct labor cost was 3 cents per unit.

Resistance

Workers at China's toy-producing sweatshops face many obstacles to organizing. Migrant workers are under an apartheid-like passbook system that limits their mobility and their contact with other workers. There are no independent trade unions, and news of resistance is suppressed. Workers who protest are blacklisted and unable to work and support their families in the countryside who depend on relatives in the cities for survival.

Despite all this, workers are beginning to find ways to resist their oppression. In early April hundreds of workers occupied a Chinese toy factory in southern China and fought with security guards sent to eject them. Ten workers were injured in the incident at the Shuihe Electronics factory in Dongguan, in the southern province of Guangdong.

The incident began after 1,500 workers were fired without being paid their February and March wages. Most were from poor, inland provinces and couldn't afford to get home from Dongguan, on the coast near Hong Kong. The factory produced toys for Wal-Mart and other companies.

*****

The conditions of workers in China's toy factories paint a vivid and horrifying picture of what capitalism and foreign investment means for the masses of Chinese people. And growing protest and rebellion by the proletariat in China illustrate Mao's famous quote that "Where there is oppression, there is resistance."

Sources used in this article include:

1. "Toys of Misery: A Report on the Toy Industry of China," National Labor Committee, January 2002 (available at www.nlcnet.org)

2. China Labor Bulletin Website, http://iso.china-labour.org.hk/iso/

3. "How Hasbro, Mattel, McDonald's and Disney manufacture their toys in China?" Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee (available at http://www.cic.org.hk/)

4. "McDonald's Toys: Do They Manufacture Fun or More Exploitation?" Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee (available at http://www.cic.org.hk/)

5. "Worked Till They Drop: Few Protections for China's New Laborers" by Philip P. Pan, Washington Post, May 13, 2002

6. "The Secret Life of Toys" by Sarah Cox, The Georgia Straight , November 5-12, 1998.


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