China toy sweat shops
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China's exploited toy workers still toil in toxic sweatshops
By Jasper Becker in Beijing
24 December 2002
In the crowded sweatshops of China's Pearl river delta, the world's toys are churned out, not by Santa's elves, but by 1.5 million peasant girls toiling through shifts of 12 or 14 hours, inhaling toxic fumes.
A 10-year campaign to introduce basic workers' rights has barely begun to improve the shabby treatment of the girls, new research shows.
"The Chinese toy factory workers are more exploited than before," said May Wong of the Asia Monitor Resource Centre who investigated the toy industry, with the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee. Another investigator, Monina Wong, author of a soon-to- be-published report for the Hong Kong Coalition for the Charter on the Safe Production of Toys, said: "Wages have actually gone down, there is so much surplus labour. Conditions have improved a
little, especially in overtime because big buyers are putting pressure on sub-contractors."
But workers still have no contracts or unions, and little protection from owners who sometimes withhold part or even all of the wages due.
China makes 70 per cent of the world's toys and its exports, now worth $7.5bn (£4.7bn) annually, have doubled in eight years. In addition, China exports nearly $1bn of plastic Christmas trees, ornaments and lights, tinsel, plastic angels and bells, Santa suits, framed pictures of Jesus and Bible scenes. Hong Kong and Taiwanese companies that make goods for the likes of Hasbro (whose brands include Action Man and Bob the Builder), Mattel (makers of Barbie) and Disney have shifted production to the Chinese mainland, lured by the plentiful supply of cheap, unregulated labour.
China has 6,000 manufacturers, largely funded by foreign companies and clustered in the Pearl river delta, or Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces.
Dr Anita Chan, an expert on Chinese labour issues at the Austrian National University, said: "People who buy toys should care, [because] conditions in the toy sector are probably worse than other factories." Sixty per cent of the toy workers are women between 17 and 23 who live in cramped company dormitories, 15 to a room, earning 30 cents an hour painting colours with a brush or spraying, or clipping the pieces together. Most get only two days off a month.
Inhaling the spray paints, glue fumes and toxic dust is a health hazard, causing dizziness, headaches and rashes. Over time, it can be fatal. The case of 19-year-old Li Chunmei, who fainted on the production line and died hours later, was reported by The Washington Post this year and taken up by trade unions in America. But such deaths are common in the Pearl river delta. This year, China introduced laws on health and safety but campaigners say these make the workers responsible for compliance and are hard to enforce.
Of the remaining $2, $1 is shared by the management and transportation in Hong Kong, 65 cents shared by the raw materials. The remaining 35 cents is earned by producers in China for providing the factory sites, labour and electricity.
Although big companies including Disney have drawn up codes of conduct, enforcing them in China is not easy. Dr Chan said: "My guess is that big factories might have shown improvement, but not the smaller sub-subcontractor."
Chinese workers had the right to strike in the 1954 constitution but this was taken away when it was amended in 1982. Now that the Communist Party is privatising the means of production, legal experts say the only logical step is for the workers to be allowed trade union freedoms.
24 December 2002 10:22
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