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China's Sweatshop Toy Industry Dependent On U.S.

by Antoaneta Bezlova

MONITOR archive of sweatshop articles
(IPS) BEIJING -- As more of the world's Christmas glitter is being made in China, cut-throat competition and lack of labor protection laws have transformed Santa's workshops into appalling sweatshops where 1.5 million Chinese peasant girls work 12 or even 14 hours a day, inhaling toxic fumes.

Santa's toys are churned out in more than 6,000 factories in Southeast China's coastal regions and shipped across the country to appease one new insatiable Chinese deity -- the commercialized version of Christmas.

In the weeks before Christmas, this new god is worshipped everywhere across China's urbanized coast and big metropolises.

Big department stores begin selling piles of Christmas tree balls and strings of lights, wreathes of pine cones and plastic pine boughs, hand-embroidered Santa stockings of various sizes, plastic angels and big wooden nutcracker dolls.

Festive Yuletide decorations are everywhere -- on old courtyards walls and glittery shopping malls and windows, on sidewalks and next to Communist Party propaganda billboards.

Ruled by a party whose official ideology scorns at religion, China is quickly becoming the world's major producer of Christmas toys and decorations. China now makes 70 percent of the world's toys and its exports have doubled in just eight years.

In addition, China exported about $1.4 billion in Christmas-related goods in the first 10 months of this year, more than half of them to the United States, according to China's customs office.

An increasing amount of these Christmas toys and decorations is also sold in China. Behind all the Christmas glitter are long, tiring shifts -- all done by women between 17 and 23 years old who live in cramped company dormitories, 15 to a room, earning just 30 cents an hour.

A 10-year campaign spearheaded by the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee to improve basic rights for the toy workers on Chinese mainland has barely begun to change the shabby treatment of the girls.

"The Chinese toy factory workers are more exploited than before," says May Wong of the Asia Monitor Resource Centre, which together with the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee has conducted detail investigations into the toy industry.

"Wages have actually gone down, there is so much surplus labor," agrees Monina Wong (no relation), a researcher with the Hong Kong Coalition for the Charter on the Safe Protection of Toys who is preparing a fresh study on China's toys exports.

Workers still have no contracts, unions and enjoy little protection from owners who sometimes withhold part or even all of the wages due them, she says.

Most of China's toy manufacturers are owned by foreign companies and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, a Communist Party-controlled union for the whole country, has very little influence in the foreign or joint-venture enterprises.

Hong Kong and Taiwanese companies that make goods for the likes of Disney, Hasbro and Mattel have long ago shifted production to the Chinese mainland, but the cheap, unregulated labor there has also prompted manufacturers to leave countries like Thailand or Indonesia.

"One of the main reasons they are moving to China is the increase in workers' activism in countries like Indonesia, argues May Wong. "Foreign companies know that in China, the government does not allow workers to organize and bargain collectively -- that is why they like to come here."

While workers may form many informal groups to protect their rights, those with independent or political objectives are subjected to severe crackdowns by the government. Leaders are often jailed, dismissed or even beaten up by security personnel.

Toy factories hire the least skilled workers because many of the tasks in producing Christmas decor or toys, like painting colors with a brush or spraying, or clipping in the pieces together, do not require special training.

Factory girls have just two days off a month although by law they are entitled to a 40-hour work week and weekends.

As temporary migrant workers hired during the peak order season, the girls are rarely covered by medical insurance although this is also compulsory under Chinese labor law.

"The factory owners, who tend to be Asians, say they are being pressed by the Western companies," says Dr. Anita Chan, an expert on Chinese labor issues at the Australian National University. "They complain their profit margin is getting smaller because the Western brand name companies press them to improve work conditions but do not want to share the cost in raising labor standards."

An investigation by the Hong Kong-based Asia Monitor Resource Centre into the price of a Mattel Barbie doll, half of whose supply are made in China, found that of the $10 retail price, $8 goes to transportation, marketing, retailing, wholesale and profit.

Of the remaining $2, one dollar goes for management and transportation in Hong Kong and 65 cents for the raw materials from Taiwan, Japan, the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The remaining 35 cents is taken by producers in China for providing factory sites, labor and electricity.

"That investigation was two years ago, and since then the toy market has become more and more competitive," says May Wong.

The toy coalition campaign took off in 1994 with key players being the Asia Monitor Resource Centre and the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee.

The coalition was formed to help compensate the victims of 1993 Zhili toy factory fire in Shenzhen, southern China, and to improve the working conditions of toy industry workers.

The fire, which broke out in 1993 at a Hong Kong-owned company in Shenzhen, left 87 workers dead and 47 injured. At the time of the fire, some 400 workers were on the site producing Christmas toys for the Italian toy brand Chicco.

Seven years passed before the victims received compensation. The company gave $192,000 to the workers but this was never paid out because a Chinese court withheld the list of victims' names. In 1999, the money went to a Chinese mainland charity.

Then, activists traced the names of the victims and found 120 families scattered in five Chinese provinces. The company eventually paid each $1,290 -- far less than what they needed for their medical fees and rehabilitation.

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Albion Monitor December 23 2002 (

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