Crossposted at My Left Wing

Back in the 1990s I researched maquiladoras in Mexico, and learned such companies as Fisher Price, Hasbro, and Mattel were using sweatshop labor there, so with the Season of Joy upon us, I became curious about who makes most of the toys now. Much of the information available online is dated, but I suspect still representative. This is what I’ve been able to glean:
Much of the $40+ billion per year international toy industry goes to places like Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and the Philippines. Roughly ONE THIRD of the world’s toys are made in southeast China, where workers are not allowed to organize. Exposure to toxic chemicals may go on ten to sixteen hours a day, six or seven days a week.  About 90% of employees are women over the age of twelve, who work in dirty, dangerous, and even lethal conditions for around fifty dollars a month.

Near as I can tell, Fisher-Price , Hasbro , Tyco and Mattel from the United States and Bandai, Nintendo, Sega, and Tomy from Japan as well as some European companies – subcontract to these Asian manufacturers, so their names never appear on the doors of the factories.

One such subcontractor is Harbour Ring International Holdings, based in Hong Kong. They’ve operated factories in Guangdong, employ 10,000 – 20,000 seasonal production workers at subsistence wages. They fire half the workforce in the winter after the Christmas season, so there is no job security for the workers. They keep some production in Hong Kong and also have moved into Indonesia. Factory fires have killed thousands and injured tens of thousands of workers. There was one incident in which after a fire, workers were locked in the factory for weeks so they wouldn’t be able to tell anyone what had happened.

The Kader toy factory in Thailand was the site of over 180 worker deaths in a 1993 fire. They manufactured toys for Arco, Kenner, J.C. Penny, Hasbro, Toys R Us, Fisher Price, and Tyco.

U.S. toy companies made $20 billion in sales in 1995, according to the New York based trade group Toy Manufacturers of America, which is one organization that might be able to influence the choice of overseas manufacturers, and/or pressure them to improve their labor practices. The toy companies know how workers are treated but they don’t care.

In 1997, Al Gore announced an executive order to “reduce environmental health and safety risks to children.” The order called for mitigation of “risks to health or to safety that are attributable to products or substances that the child is likely to come in contact with or ingest.”

In 1998 the Commerce Department lobbied on behalf of U.S. toy and chemical manufacturers against proposed European efforts to prevent children’s exposure to toxic chemicals released by PVC (polyvinyl chloride) toys. The EU Consumer Affairs Commissioner tried to launch a ban on these toys in Europe, but it was rejected by the Commission. Meanwhile, here in the U.S. our very own government lobbied on behalf of Mattel and Exxon to keep this stuff on the market.

There are chemicals called phthalates, used primarily as plasticizer additives to give vinyl products softness, that leach out of the vinyl. Although phthalates vary in toxicity, the most widely-used phthalates (e.g. DEHP or di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate) have been linked in animal studies to damage to the kidneys, liver, and reproductive systems. The U.S. EPA labels DEHP a probable human carcinogen. Other studies suggest they may disrupt the endocrine system, affect blood pressure and heart rate, and may be linked to asthma when absorbed on airborne particles. Vinyl toys also contain hazardous levels of cadmium and lead, and may release toxic metal dust to their surfaces.  

And you know those little Happy Meals toys kids get at McDonald’s? Those are made in places like Vietnam where workers suffer acetone poisoning and pass out because the factories won’t install adequate ventilation systems. How HAPPY can YOU be, knowing a teenaged girl makes those toys 70 hours a week for six cents an hour while breathing poison?

According to the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, Disney has been among the worst of the sweatshop retailers. The organization documented abuses of labor in twelve of their Chinese factories.

Here at home we see our manufacturing jobs being shipped overseas. It hurts everyone. To achieve economic justice in the U.S., we need to support good wages and safe working conditions for workers world-wide, until these companies have no place else to go.

I bet Santa Claus would want it that way.

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