Albion Monitor /News

"Happy Meal" Toys Made by Sad Sweatshop Workers

by Farhan Haq

220 of the workers fell seriously ill last February
(IPS) NEW YORK -- Labor monitoring groups say that the health and rights of hundreds of young Vietnamese women who make toys distributed by McDonald's, the world's largest retail food chain, have been severely violated.

The mainly young, female workforce at Keyhinge Toys, a Hong Kong-owned factory in Da Nang City, Vietnam are forced to work every day for nine to 10 hours daily, making toys that serve as prizes for McDonald's "Happy Meals," says the National Labor Committee, a New York-based labor rights group.

But the Keyhinge workers suffer from wages below minimum levels, and health conditions so bad that 220 of the workers fell seriously ill last Feb. 21, from what one study concludes was acetone poisoning.

Some 200 other workers were abruptly dismissed in an apparent dispute over working conditions following the incident
According to a study conducted by the Hong Kong-based Asia Monitor Research Center (AMRC) at the factory last month, many Keyhinge workers earn only an "apprenticeship" salary of 700 dong (or 6 U.S. cents) an hour, far below Vietnam's legal minimum wage. Many other workers are only paid 1000 dong, (8 cents), an hour, according to the Vietnamese newspaper Lao Dong (Labor).

In Vietnamese cities outside of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the minimum wage for workers in foreign industries amounts to some $35 a month; the two largest cities have minimum wages of $50 a month.

The AMRC estimates that a "living wage" adequate to pay for a worker's housing, meals, and transport would come to about $65 a month -- nearly four times what a Keyhinge worker can make, even if she works 10 hours a day for an entire month.

Yet low wages are not the workers' worst problem, the study alleges. The study "found that workers were exposed to high amounts of acetone pollution in the air. In particular, the workers employed in the painting section of the toy factory are exposed to extremely high levels of acetone."

Experts have found that prolonged exposure to acetone, a colourless liquid that works as a solvent, can lead to dizziness, nausea, headaches and unconsciousness. It may also affect women's menstrual cycles. Ninety percent of the roughly 1,000 Keyhinge workers are women between the ages of 17 and 20, the study adds.

In the Feb. 21 incident, the AMRC says, 220 workers were forced to stop work because of acetone poisoning, which caused 25 workers to collapse. Three were later admitted to the hospital for emergency treatment after passing out, the study notes.

The next day, the group adds, some 200 other workers were abruptly dismissed by Keyhinge's management, in an apparent dispute over working conditions following the incident.

Chen Wei Qing, deputy director of Keyhinge, later said the workers had been sent home "temporarily" as a result of a misunderstanding, and 150 workers resumed their jobs on Feb. 24, with 50 others promised to return by March 6. However, the AMRC could not confirm whether all the dismissed workers had in fact returned by March 6.

A McDonald's spokesperson told The Boston Globe that "these are unsubstantiated allegations half a world away," and described the acetone exposure as "an isolated incident"
Groups concerned with the health problems, dismissals, and low wages have taken up the issue not only with Keyhinge, which is wholly owned by Hong Kong entrepreneurs, but with McDonald's and with M-B Sales, a Chicago-based contractor which hired Keyhinge to make toys for McDonald's.

"We believe that in order to undertake concrete measures to rectify these problems, it is necessary for McDonald's (to) cooperate directly with occupational health and safety specialists (and local groups) the independent monitoring of its factories," Chan Ka Wai, a member of the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, wrote in a letter to McDonald's Hong Kong branch.

McDonald's Restaurants in Hong Kong, however, responded by claiming that M-B Sales is responsible for all working conditions in its Chinese and Vietnamese factories. A McDonald's spokesperson told The Boston Globe that "these are unsubstantiated allegations half a world away," and described the acetone exposure as "an isolated incident."

An M-B Sales spokeswoman in Chicago said that although it contracts for apparel manufacturing overseas, the company is not involved in toy manufacturing anywhere in the world.

However, Paul Neppes, a senior vice president for M-B Sales in Hong Kong, met last month with a coalition of groups calling for the safe production of toys, and assured them, in Chan's words, that "M-B Sales will look into some of the issues raised."

Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee, says that McDonald's is following a typical pattern by placing the blame on its contractors and the Keyhinge subcontractor, while denying any involvement in labor violations. "We've seen this a million times with companies," he argues.

He adds that the popular Happy Meals promotional campaign -- in which the toys manufactured in Vietnam and China accompany child-sized meals -- "should not be based on teenaged girls in Vietnam being forced to work 70 hours a week, earning just 6 cents an hour and breathing dangerous poisons."

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Albion Monitor May 10, 1997 (

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