04.China the biggest toy maker
Made in China
Three-quarters of the world's toys are made in China.
Working conditions in Chinese export factories have improved over the past decade, mainly in the areas of fire safety and protective clothing. However, two 2007 reports by US-based NGOs revealed abysmal conditions in the Chinese toy industry. China Labor Watch (CLW) investigated eight factories that made toys for Disney, Bandai, Sega and Hasbro; the National Labor Committee (NLC) looked at factories that made toys for Mattel, McDonald’s, RC2 and Wal-Mart.
But affecting far more workers in the Chinese toy industry are problems that are neither as visible as a dangerous workplace, nor as easily fixed. While China’s labour law is in fact more comprehensive than that of many OECD countries, enforcement is problematic and violations are widespread. Truly independent trade unions are rare.
“China is not transparent to us,” says Amnesty International Australia's Sophie Peer. “As freedom of speech is strictly limited, the full extent of human rights or labour rights abuses is unknown.”
China is the biggest toy maker, producing 70–80% of the toys in the world. The factories aren’t necessarily sweatshops — many have high-tech, modern equipment. However, such good physical conditions can often hide serious labour violations.
Most of China’s toy workers are young women migrants from the countryside, who often live in dormitories on the factory grounds. In some factories, the cost for accommodation and food is automatically deducted whether they live there or not, leaving the workers largely dependent on overtime to meet the costs for other basic necessities. They’re also often paid irregularly, less than local urban workers, and their wages haven’t kept up with rising living costs.
Toy workers often have to work long days in the peak toy season without appropriate pay — often for more than 80 hours a week – well above China’s legal limit. If they refuse, many factories impose fines for these and other ‘misdemeanours’, such as missing a day’s work or spending too long in the toilet.
It’s true that for many migrant workers, these jobs are better than alternatives in their home districts — but there are opportunities for western consumers to influence standards for the better.
- Siobhan MacCarthy and Richard Boele from Banarra Sustainability Assurance and Advice, who evaluated the companies’ codes of conduct for us.
- Serena Lillywhite of the Brotherhood of St Laurence (BSL), who’s familiar with Chinese manufacturing export plants by inspecting the supply chain of a BSL-owned optical frames business. Other China experts confirmed the conditions Serena observed there were very similar to those in toy factories.