Wed, Dec 07, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Christmas joy lacking in toy factories

An investigation in China found evidence of practices such as excessive overtime, late wages and fines for using the toilet

By Gethin Chamberlain  /  The Observer, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

With Christmas less than three weeks away, an undercover investigation has revealed the bleak realities of life in Chinese toy factories serving a market worth £2.8 billion (US$4.38 billion) a year in the UK alone.

Big brands such as Disney, Lego and Marks & Spencer (M&S) pay only a fraction of the shop price of products to the factories that make their toys. Last summer — as factories geared up to cope with demand for the Christmas period — investigators spent three weeks in the industrial cities of Shenzhen and Dongguan.

In some cases, they found that: Employees worked up to 140 extra hours overtime a month; were paid up to a month late; claimed they were expected to work with dangerous tools and machines without training or safety measures; and had to work in silence and were fined up to £5 for going to the toilet without permission.

Perhaps the most insidious effect of the long hours and poor wages was how it tore families apart, separating mothers and fathers from their children for all but a few days a year. Many workers were too afraid to speak to the investigators from the human rights group Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), but two women did agree to talk on condition that their names were changed.

Wang Fengping, 27, has two daughters, seven and five. They live a 10-hour train journey away from the On Tai Toys factory. She and her husband earn £200 a month making toys for Disney and others, but cannot afford to bring the children to the city. Instead, the girls are cared for by their grandparents. Wang calls them two or three times a week. The younger one always asks her when she is coming home.

“Very soon,” Wang always replies.

The reality is that they will meet only once a year, at Lunar New Year, never at Christmas. She keeps her spirits up by telling her workmates stories of how well the girls are doing at school. Sometimes she sings them songs the girls have learned at school and then sung to her down the phone.

“Our family will not die from hunger, but cannot be fed with this wage level,” she said.

Ma Hui, 25, works for the Hung Hing Printing Group, making items for M&S, Lego and Disney. She has a two-year-old daughter, whom she had to leave behind when the child was just three months old in the hope that she could earn enough one day to return home to set up her own business and reunite the family. She, too, only sees her child once a year and has hung a picture of her daughter on the dormitory wall next to her bed.

SACOM accuses big global brands of failing to pay the factories enough, with workers suffering because factories undercut each other in an attempt to secure contracts. The report also accuses the industry’s own regulator of failing to clamp down on rights abuses.

“In the run-up to Christmas, toys are a popular choice as presents for children,” SACOM spokeswoman Debby Chan Sze Wan said. “They probably bring joy to consumers and the toy companies, but the workers cannot afford toys or books for their beloved children. The hardship of workers is due to the exploitation in the global supply chain. If the brands do not raise the unit price and change their purchasing practices, no structural change in working conditions in the toy industry is feasible.”

Investigators targeted three factories, including On Tai Toys Co, which manufactures for Disney and a number of other international brands, and Hung Hing. All the factories are certified as decent toy manufacturers by the International Council of Toy Industries, which is supposed to police ethical standards in more than 2,400 factories that employ about 1.7 million people worldwide.

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