In Chinese factories producing Christmas toys, an undercover investigation by China Labor Watch exposes low wages, hazardous chemicals and overtime beyond legal limits.
China Labor Watch’s founder and executive director, Li Qiang, said: “We can’t tolerate that children’s dreams are based on workers’ nightmares, and we must fight against the unfair oppression of workers who manufacture toys.”
Xiao Fang works 11-hour days, six days a week, and shares a dormitory with nine other women and gets to see her husband only once a week. She had to leave her three-year-old daughter back home in Sichuan. And there is only a communal bathroom, and if they want hot water they must fetch it from another floor. But at least she has a job.
Workers making toys including Barbie, Thomas the Tank Engine and Hot Wheels were made by staff earning as little as 86p an hour. Working all available overtime and with all allowances and deductions applied, a worker takes home far less than the average wage in Chinese cities of £715 a month.
At the Chang’an Toy factory, investigators spoke to workers who said that they made the company’s Barbie dolls. The factory employs about 4,200 people, and workers again claimed they worked more than 100 hours a month overtime at peak periods, starting on a base wage of £1.08 an hour. The basic monthly wage was £188 and the maximum take-home pay after overtime, allowances and deductions was £337. The investigators said that the average working week was 68.3 hours. Chinese labour law allows a maximum of only 36 overtime hours a month. A worker averaging 68.3 hours a week would be working an average 88 hours of overtime a month – but workers claimed the figure was higher during peak production periods over the summer.
At the Combine Will factory in Dongguang, which employs about 2,700 people, investigators photographed toys being manufactured for McDonald’s Happy Meals, investigators interviewed workers in the cutting section, who said they sometimes clocked up 100 hours of overtime a month. They also found that the inside of the building could get as hot as 31C. Wages started at £1.08 an hour. The basic wage for a five-day week was £189 a month, with the upper limit of take-home pay about £337. However, some workers on piece rate were able to earn as much as £482 a month.
The Shenzhen Wei Lee Fung Plastic Products Co factory employs about 2,000 workers, who reported that they started on a basic wage of £1.16 an hour and claimed they were expected to work more than 100 hours of overtime and are required to sign a statement promising to accept any punishment handed out.
Overtime can run to nearly three times the legal limit. Workers making toys in factories supplying Disney, Mattel, Fisher-Price and McDonald’s who reported having to do more than 100 hours of overtime a month – nearly three times the legal limit in China. The toy industry’s own watchdog, the ICTI Care Foundation, says it is powerless to stop many Chinese factories breaking the law on overtime.
“The reality is, across the board, most factories, or the vast majority at least, work way beyond legal limits in China, and legal limits are almost universally ignored,” said Mark Robertson, ICTI Care’s director of communications.
And many workers have to work with hazardous chemicals. One worker described having to work with isoamyl acetate – commonly know as banana oil – which can soften and dissolve plastics. An investigator who worked on a production line and came into direct contact with the substance, reported that some workers had complained to management about the strong odour. Workers say they were expected to work with banana oil and isopropyl alcohol, which can cause dizziness and even death in high concentrations.
China Labor Watch’s Li Qiang accused the toy companies of exploiting Chinese workers. He said: “Workers in toy factories face heavy workloads every day, but only earn an extremely low wage. They have children as well. Those who earn high profits from toys have done so by oppressing the interests of workers, and as such their negligence should be subject to public and moral condemnation.”