By Chelsea Jones
In celebration of the spirit of the season, people around the world exchange gifts. With generous, joyful intentions the year’s largest shopping frenzy is initiated so gifts can be exchanged, with a certain focus on giving presents to children.
This is when most of us sink into an ignorant, holiday bliss where the effects of consumerism are often underestimated. As consumers, we are barely aware of the product’s origin as we become part of the Christmas rush; frantic to buy the best stuffed animal, game or action figure for a certain someone. The bottom line is that we know very little about where toys come from, who makes them or how they are made. But even though we don’t know the specific production details of any given toy, we have all seen that common “made in China” label. And many of us do know that, according to Statistics Canada, China has become Canada’s second largest source of imported goods from any single country—topped only by the United States. Toys make up a large part of imported consumer goods, and 60 percent of all toys sold in Canada are being made in China.
As a whole, the toy industry is worth nearly $2 billion a year with Mattel being the largest toy tycoon of them all. As a result of our ever-changing society, many children are receiving more and more gifts as their grandparents acquire more disposable income, as more children live in two homes as a result of split families, and as the bombardment of advertising intensifies, pressuring everyone into spending more and more each year.
Behind the Scenes
Over the last few years, fires at Asian toy factories have killed hundreds of workers and injured plenty more. In February 1997, the Asia Monitor Resource Centre (a Hong Kong based human rights organization) revealed that 220 Vietnamese workers had been poisoned by acetone, a dangerous chemical used to manufacture plastic goods, while putting together McDonald’s Happy Meal toys for as little as six cents per hour.
Employees at these kinds of factories are frequently children. According to UNICEF’s 2004 State of the World’s Children report, 246 million children are engaged in what Canadians would consider to be “adult” occupations, including positions in toy factories producing Christmas presents for consumers in our country.
This is the kind of child labour that most Canadians are directly connected to. Indeed, the toys we purchase have a direct connection with labour issues around the world.
Children are hired by manufactures because they lack the information and motivation to form unions and demand reasonable working conditions. Also, if these children are illegally employed some companies are able to avoid paying for government programs, such as social security. And most notably, recruiting children to work maximizes profit for employers because they get away with paying the children less than the legal minimum wage within the area.
Many children worldwide have to work to help support their families because the low wages paid to adult workers ensures poverty despite back breaking and spirit deadening labour. Impoverished parents cannot afford child-care or education for their children and the cycle of poverty continues, from one generation to the next.
These children often end up working in dangerous, abusive and even deadly environments such as sweatshops and factories that produce goods purchased around the world.
It is difficult for researchers or toy-coalition members to approach many of these young workers. Can Ka Wai, executive director of the Hong Kong-based Christian Industrial Committee says the soft-toy industry is a small scale industry without heavy security, making it easy to talk to workers. “But for plastics,” he continues, “it’s a huge, complex factory and it’s very difficult.”
Toy companies such as Mattel hold back names of their suppliers. This means that any toy made by Mattel could have been manufactured by any one of about 50 Chinese factories contracted by the company, or in a factory Mattel may own with private investors. Or it could be that parts of the toy, including it’s packaging, have been made in one of many factories jointly owned by the company and contractors small enough not to be named or legally acknowledged.
In 1998, George Irwin, the president of Irwin Toy Ltd. said that the reason for the strict confidentiality surrounding toy factories is due to the competitiveness within the industry. “We guard very jealously our vendors,” Irwin says, “because we don’t want any of our competitors to get an advantage by knowing who they are.” Sixty percent of Irwin’s toys are produced overseas, primarily in China and Malaysia.
In some cases, governments try to keep the issue from reaching the media in order to maintain their countries’ reputation of conforming to international labour laws. As a result, the names of people who make toys, what they are paid, how often they work, and the conditions under which they work are usually not discovered until it’s too late. Accidents in toy factories that take people’s lives catch the eyes of the media, rather than the ongoing labour conditions endured by workers that lead up to such accidents.
For example, on May 13, 2002, the Washington Post ran a powerful article about a 19 year old woman who was worked to death in the Bainan Toy Factory, in the south of China. The managers of the factory refused to tell Washington Post reporter Philip Pan which companies the toys were being produced for. The Child Labour watch, however, made a follow up visit the same year and heard testimonials from young workers at the Bainan Toy Factory who said they were producing Disney products, specifically stuffed Mickey Mouse toys for less than ten cents per toy.
Sarah Cox wrote about the Kader Industrial Toy Company, near Bangkok, Thailand in her report titled The Secret Life of Toys. “There are no sprinkler systems, no fire exits,” she says, “The company’s 3,000 workers have never had a fire drill.” In 1989 a fire in a Kader toy factory killed one worker and injured 30 others when polyester fabric used to make dolls ignited in a sewing machine. An International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) report said that Kader employed girls as young as 13, and paid them as little as $2.40 (USA) a day—which was about half of the minimum wage for Bangkok and surrounding areas.
Six months later, another fire in a Zhili Handicraft factory in China’s Shenzhen region killed 87 workers; they were manufacturing stuffed toys for export to Canada and Italy.
Despite the light shed on labour conditions by sporadic media coverage of these avoidable tragedies, the reality still remains that workers who die in fires will earn more publicity than the many left behind to suffer the long term effects of unsafe working conditions.
In 1997, the Asia Monitor Resource Centre worked with the Coalition for the Charter on the Safe Production of Toys (another human rights organization) and released a report on 10 Chinese factories that manufacture plastic toys for export. The report says that workers are poorly compensated for industrial accidents which may result in the loss of fingers and parts of their palms, earn less than legal wages, and are likely to suffer from long term health issues due to the constant exposure to chemicals within the working environment. And again, a number of child workers are suspected to be engaged in this toy production.
Production methods that involve child labour and unfair working conditions have long term effects on these workers, whether consumers realize this or not. This is why it is so important to question the source of consumer goods.
The Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN) is a Canadian network that works with many organizations across Canada in an attempt to support worker’s efforts to improve working conditions around the world. It believes in holding retailers accountable for the production of their garments and other products.
It is a myth that the only way to prevent child labour, or unfair working conditions is to boycott companies. Boycotting has the potential to affect export patterns, but not much else. An alternative to boycotting is accessing organizations such as the MSN, which can provide links to other groups working to strategically eliminate unfair working conditions and child labour. It can also provide names of companies which produce goods made by child labour.
The MSN suggests that rather than refusing to purchase products made by certain companies, the following approaches can be taken to encourage better working conditions for everyone, including children:
Pressure corporations to end the new recruitment of child labourers, and phase out the current use of child labour while providing support for the children and their families.
Push for effective regulation, rather than elimination, of child labour. Encourage the efforts of adults and young workers to gain fair wages and working conditions, as well as hours of work that allow for education and leisure.
Support trade and development programs that will potentially encourage the economic capacity of countries. This can help provide education and security for children who may otherwise be forced to work for a living.
It is certainly disturbing to think, especially during the holiday season, that we may be buying toys for our children that are made by other children who may suffer from serious health related issues due to poor working environments.
Unfortunately, too many consumers buy into the massive, seasonal media campaigns without realizing the effects their purchases may have on children around the world. It is important that we are conscious of what we are buying and how those items are produced because all children should be considered during this holiday season—not just those for whom we buy gifts.
Chelsea Jones is a Regina student and freelance writer working towards a career in journalism.