This Christmas, tens of thousands of children the world over will excitedly tear the wrapping paper off an Ariel doll – Disney’s Little Mermaid – secure in the knowledge that it was made for them by Santa’s happy elves at the north pole.
The reality would come as a cruel surprise. For elves, read Chinese factory workers. For the north pole, read the city of Heyuan. And for happy, read miserable – from illegally long working hours and exhaustion to wages too low to support a family.
Heyuan is a city of roughly 3 million people in Guangdong province, south-east China. It is home to Wah Tung (Heyuan) Toy Manufacturing Ltd, where about 2,000 workers produce a range of mainly plastic toys and electronics. This is where Disney makes the Princess Sing & Sparkle Ariel doll that sells for £34.99. In the last quarter it helped Disney’s consumer products division to an operating income of £264m on revenue of £880m.
Rights groups Solidar Suisse and China Labor Watch, in partnership with the Guardian, found evidence of excessive and illegal overtime, basic pay rates as low as 85p an hour, no holiday or sick pay and high levels of exhaustion among the largely female workforce making toys for Disney, Mattel’s Fisher Price brand and other international toy companies. Workers reported being fined or dismissed if they took three or more days off sick.
Staff at the Wah Tung factory in the city of Heyuan said that they worked 175 hours of overtime in a month, with only one day off over that period – both breaches of Chinese labour law and toy industry codes of conduct.
The basic wage on the line is 7.5 Chinese yuan (85p) – legal, but so low that workers say they feel obliged to work overtime. The investigation also highlighted a significant gender imbalance, with men outnumbering women nine to one in management roles but women making up 80% of the workforce. The investigator joined the Sing & Sparkle assembly line for a month during the summer. From her own experience and interviews with fellow workers, she found daily overtime varied between two and five hours and that, with weekends included, overtime would sometimes hit 175 hours a month – nearly five times the legal limit of 36 hours. Workers were expected to arrive 10 minutes before the start of their shifts; many reported feeling excessively tired because of the long hours. She also noted that most of her colleagues were women over the age of 45 who were drawn to the work because they were “poorly educated, well-behaved, obedient, and care more about children and family”. Factories like them because “they are less likely to make trouble and easier to manage” than men, she wrote.
In low season, workers earned about 2,000 Chinese yuan a month (£228); during peak season, they generally took home about 3,000 yuan. A survey last year put the average Chinese monthly salary at 7,665 yuan.