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Recent report on toy production in China: Inhuman and disgraceful conditions

The working conditions in 12 factories which are producing toys for Western markets are surveyed in a recent report from Hong Kong. The conclusion of the report is that well-known brand names like Barbie, Chicco, and Fisher Price are produced under extremely inhuman and disgraceful conditions, and also in violation of Chinese law. The same applies to "free toys" from McDonald's and Nestl‚. NorWatch has examined the Norwegian toy market, and has found most of the products in stores in this country.
Artikkelen er mer enn to år gammel. Ting kan ha endret seg.
The working conditions in 12 factories which are producing toys for Western markets are surveyed in a recent report from Hong Kong. The conclusion of the report is that well-known brand names like Barbie, Chicco, and Fisher Price are produced under extremely inhuman and disgraceful conditions, and also in violation of Chinese law. The same applies to "free toys" from McDonald's and Nestl‚. NorWatch has examined the Norwegian toy market, and has found most of the products in stores in this country.

By Morten Rønning and Harald Eraker

The survey "Working conditions in the Chinese toy industry" is carried out for Coalition for the Charter on the Safe Production of Toys by the two Hong Kong-based organisations Asia Monitor Resource Center (AMRC) and Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee.

AMRC has specialized in the examination of working conditions within Chinese industries, especially in the southern areas, and has worked on the toy industry for four years. They have also carried out several surveys within the shoe- and clothes-manufacturing business.

The survey examines salary- and employment conditions, working hours and overtime, vacation, deposits, medical services and other issues. The data have been collected by visiting the factories and interviewing the workers in the period August to October this year. Because this kind of activity is not permitted, the interviews were often carried out off working hours and the place of work. In many cases the workers told that they had been warned against talking to outsiders about the working conditions.

All the factories, which are situated in export processing zones in the Guangdong province, are operating as subcontractors for Western companies, and are not owned by these companies.
NorWatch has examined the products and found that most of them are available on the Norwegian market, imported by Mattel, Brio, McDonald's and Nestl‚, respectively. The brand names in question are Barbie, Fisher Price, Chicco, Tomy, Tyco, Disney, Teletubbies, and McDonald's and Nestl‚ where the toys are added to food/chocolate. (See page 6 for information on the Norwegian market and comments from the Norwegian importers.)

Below follows a short summary of the main criticisms against the 12 factories which are included in the survey. The results are also summed up in a table (page 4-5), where the results for each factory are specified.

Contractual relations
A working contract to regulate the relationship between the employer and the employee is required by the Chinese Labour Law.

In only four of the12 factories in the survey such a contract had been signed. None of these four factories had supplied the employees with a copy of the contract.

According to local regulations it is not permitted to demand a deposit of any sort from the workers. In spite of this, two kinds of deposits are being charged from the workers in all the twelve factories.

In all the factories the company keeps a share of the employee's salary, in the range of 20 days to 1.5 months payment.

In addition, six of the factories also charge a cash deposit, between 30 to 120 Chinese Yuan Renminbi (RMB). (1 USD = 8.27 RMB).

The intention behind the deposit, and the confiscation of the employee's ID card, is to ensure that the employees are "loyal" towards the factory.

The deposit is to be repaid when the employee leaves, but in many cases this does not hold good (see the section on resignation).

Wage system
According to the Labour Law, the minimum wage in the area is 350 RMB per month. Even though this is very low to begin with, the wages paid in the factories vary from 300 RMB to 1000 RMB.

New employees can be paid as little as 40 RMB a month.

Most of the work is done on a piecework basis, either by the piece or on quota arrangements. This implies that the wage will vary throughout the year, according to variations in demand.

The subcontractors operate with a penalty system for "offences" committed by employees. Among such "offences" are "unlawful" absence, late-coming, smoking in the work-place, loss of the factory's ID card or other violations of the regulations.

The fines vary between the factories, from 1 RMB for late-coming, to 100 RMB for "unlawful" absence.

Compulsory absence
In three of the factories the workers had been asked to stay at home without being paid, as there were no tasks for them. When a worker is laid off like this, he or she can neither resign, have the deposit repaid to have something to live by, or have the ID card returned. Without an ID card it is impossible to apply for jobs elsewhere.

If the worker does not show up when the work recommences, he or she will lose both unpaid wage, deposit, and ID card.

Overtime and piecework contracts
According to the Labour Law, the daily working hours are not to exceed 8 hours or 44 hours a week. The employer is also responsible for giving the employee one day off every week.

For all the 12 factories standard working hours are 8 hours a day. However, during busy periods the workers are not free to leave the factory after 8 hours. The report points out that most of them work from 10 to 16 hours a day, six or seven days a week. In one of the factories employees were also instructed to work nights.

The Labour Law limits the use of overtime to maximum 3 hours per day, and 36 hours per month.

In the 12 factories of the survey, the lowest number of hours worked overtime is 3 hours per day, 15 hours per week, and 60 hours per month. The highest number is 8 hours per day, 56 hours per week, and 224 hours per month.

The Labour Law also regulates the use of piecework contracts, and instructs the factories not to set demands for production higher than what can be done within a legal workday.

Many of the factories operate with minimum wages and quotas. Piecework contracts ensure that there is no overtime payment. High labour turnover also leads to lower production, as new workers are always being trained.

The result of the high production requirements is that the workers in one of the factories do not get more than four hours of sleep per night.

Board and lodging
Most of the workers have to pay for board and lodging in the factory. The cost of food varies between 40 RMB and 150 RMB per month. The price for lodging is from 5 RMB to 60 RMB. In addition some factories charge employees for electricity and light.

In most of the factories the employees complained of the quality of the food, and many of them had been hospitalized because of food poisoning. The workers complain of little nutriment in the food, and breakfast often consists of left-overs from the day before.

Lodging is often in rooms for 12 persons with six double beds and a cooling fan. In one of the factories of the survey the workers are lodged in dormitories which take more than 300 people.

The Labour Law instructs the employer to give the employees holiday in association with 7 festivals each year, and it recommends 2 days off every week. The survey shows that these regulations are violated in most of the 12 factories, and that workers are also instructed to work during festivals.

Only three of the factories give the workers one day off every week. When given the day off in association with festivals, many workers do not get enough time to go home to celebrate the day, so that they have to stay in the workplace. 

"We are always asked to work long hours until mid-night, and receive little wage. If it is not my wage and deposit is withheld, I would have quitted earlier ."
Worker in the Tri-S factory (Fisher Price/Tyco toys) to CCSPT

The Labour Law gives any employee the right to resign from his or her job giving one month's written notice, but none of the factories of the survey allow the employees to resign during the contract period. Only one of the factories, which does not have work contracts, gives the employees a month's notice.

It is difficult to get approval for resignation even after the termination of the contract period. Without an approved resignation one will lose unpaid wage and the deposit. In at least one of the factories the management keeps the ID card. This makes it impossible to find a new job. However, some workers do leave without being paid what is owing to them.

The employer, on the other hand, can dismiss, or "lay off", the workers without paying them at any time.

Health, environment, and security
Most of the 12 factories have their own doctor. In this way the factories ensure that the employees do not leave the workplace when they are ill. In most of the factories the workers must either pay for medical treatment, or a fixed amount of money is deducted from their salary for the service.

Illness is not accepted as reason for absence in any of the 12 factories, and the health service simply implies that the doctor gives the employee medicine, before the person in question has to return to work.

The work environment generally does not meet the requirements of the regulations. Many of the interviewed workers complain of dust and smell from spray paint. Many workers are bothered by influenza, eye irritations, skin diseases and itching. It is reported of many workers fainting as a result of poor ventilation. Loud noise and lack of noise protection result in loss of hearing over time. Only employees in the spray painting departments are given additional payment as compensation for the health hazard they are exposed to.

There have been many accidents in toy factories, where factory and lodging are often situated in the same building. It is reported that lodging is gradually moved away from the factories, in some cases.

Child labour
In an area of China where unemployment is high, it is unnecessary to hire children to push down wages. The great majority of the employees in toy production are young women, and wages are generally low. Only one of the 12 factories has been fined for child labour by the authorities.

However, there is an extensive borrowing of ID cards, partially because people have left their jobs without having their card returned. Such cards are a necessity to find employment. But since the cards are lent to others, the factories do not really know whom they have employed, or whether the employees are over 16 years old, as required by the law. An ID card which says that one is older than one really is, may increase a person's opportunities on the labour market. 

"I left Tri-S three days ago because I could not stand the low wages anymore. This month I  only receive 350 RMB."
Worker in the Tri-S factory (Fisher Price/Tyco toys) to CCSPT

The majority of the interviewed workers complained of maltreatment by the management. This comes in addition to the penalty system.

Workers complained because the management yelled at them for no reason, and because some of the workers had been badly beaten up by the management.

In spite of the fact that this kind of treatment of employees is illegal, these incidents are never reported to the police. The result of the generally bad treatment is that there are recurring changes of staff.

Trade union
The Chinese Labour Law gives the employees the right to organize in the trade union of their wish. Yet, there is only one trade union in China, All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which is associated with the Government and the Communist Party.

ACFTU had organized a trade union in only one of the twelve factories. ACFTU has demonstrated that it is not very interested in the well-being of the workers. Its aim is rather to make sure that the authorities have the workers under control. The result is that even though the workers raise the problems of their workplace with ACFTU, the complaint is either ignored, or the trade union supports the employer.

Since neither ACFTU or the local Labour Bureau are very helpful towards workers, conflicts on the workplace often result in strike.

In one of the instances mentioned in the report, strike led to dismissal of employees. In another example, the factory withheld the employees' wages, until they had expressed their regret in writing.

Approximately 80% of all the toys in the world are produced in China. The survey which has been carried out by Coalition for the Charter on the Safe Production of Toys (CCSPT) unfortunately illustrates that a good deal of this production takes place under disgraceful working conditions, in sharp contrast to the Chinese regulations.

After having studied the toy business for four years, CCSPT sums up their report by stating that the situation of the workers is still not satisfactory, and that the workers' rights are not attended to. This confirms the findings of previous reports.

The 12 mentioned factories produce toys for acknowledged, Western producers, of which among others Mattel operate with international guidelines for their subcontractors. Such guidelines give no security, neither for the workers, nor for the customer, for that matter, if the company itself does not take interest in monitoring the production.

Norwatch Newsletter 19/98