Toys from Hell

In China, Santas elves labor in a Dickensian workhouse

Walk the aisles of any toy store and try to locate a toy that was not made in China.

Not gonna happen. All the major companies—Hasbro, Mattel, even Disney —moved their manufacturing plants to Asia years ago. The reason: cheap labor.

According to independent researchers cited by the San Francisco human-rights group Global Exchange, a living wage for a Chinese family is 87 cents per hour. Over a standard 8-hour workday—and working 40 hours per week—that comes to $39 per week, which, the group says, is enough to maintain a comfortable existence for the worker and his or her family.

The problem is that Chinese workers make something like 15 cents per hour. If they worked just 40 hours at their current average pay, they'd earn about $6 per week. Two earners, say a husband and wife, would make about $12 per week—about a third of the living wage.

Of course, Chinese workers typically work far more than 40 hours, Global Exchange reports—as much as 16 hours each day, seven days a week, an astonishing 112 hours per week. And don't even think about "double-time"; overtime bonuses, when they exist, amount to mere pennies. Workers at one Disney plant earn a thin dime added to their regular wage for mandatory 5-hour overtime shifts.

Multinationals like Disney and Mattel have "codes of conduct" calling for workers to receive good wages and clean living conditions, and the Chinese government has "labor laws" that outlaw child labor and require 40-hour workweeks and decent wages. These make for great PR, but the reality of Chinese work is different.

In fact, the labor environment for Chinese workers bears a striking resemblance to late-19th-century America. Many plants include dorms, with as many as 12 workers living in a single room. They're not only cramped, but also unsafe: toxic chemicals plague the work environments of toy plants all over the country. Also, in 1993, 83 workers died in a toy-factory fire eerily reminiscent of the notorious New York Triangle Fire of 1911 that killed 146 workers —and led to a public clamor for government regulation of the garment industry.

Attempts to unionize are met with immediate firings. Even a mere public grievance can bring a fine equal to two days' wages. The result are unsafe conditions, long hours and low pay. A February 1999 Global Exchange report says the average wage for a Chinese worker in a plant making toys and garments for Disney is roughly 14 cents per hour. During the holiday season, with overtime added in, the highest wage for Disney factory workers is just $122.74 per month—79 percent of what a worker needs to maintain a middle-class life.

A May 2000 report from the National Labor Committee (NLC) describes similar conditions at plants making bicycles for Ohio-based Huffy. Workers at those plants earn between 25 cents and 41 cents per hour. That averages out to just $66.72 per month, less than half of China's living wage. To maintain a positive cash flow, many factories also delay wage payment, sometimes as long as three months.

The ill effects of such a system are not all on one side. Think about it this way: a worker at a Huffy plant in China can expect to pull in $144.56 per month after working a good 93 hours a week. A few years ago, workers here in the U.S. made those bikes, working just 40 hours a week, but pulling in $17 per hour in salary and benefits. That $2,720 per month helped produce a middle class, something that simply doesn't exist in China, where Santa's workshop is a Dickensian hell.

 
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