Judging from the just-ended Hong Kong Toy and Games Fair, the toy industry and governments are paying a lot of attention to efforts to correct problems that led to widespread recalls last year.
Hundreds of factories have joined the industry's ethical-manufacturing program, and China has revoked export licenses for hundreds of its estimated 3,500 export-oriented toy factories.
But is an important question being ignored? Can you really improve the safety of products from China without addressing the conditions in the factories where they're made?
The U.S.-based China Labor Watch came out with a much-noticed report in August, during the height of the toy recalls, that linked the problems to industry business practices, including what it termed improving but still ``devastatingly brutal'' labor conditions in some Chinese factories.
``China Labor Watch believes that these toys' low quality is a result of multinationals' single-minded pursuit of ever-lower prices and neglect of other considerations,'' the group said.
The report gained notice because consumers are interested in the conditions in toy factories in China, according to Christian Ewert, president and chief executive officer of the New York-based ICTI Care Foundation, an ethical-manufacturing program set up by the International Council of Toy Industries trade group.
``I think we are not in a position to really establish a close link here, but can you rule it out?'' he said in a toy fair speech. ``It's not just toy safety that is really important. It is also the conditions under which your products, our toys, are being manufactured in China.
``Your biggest assets are actually your factory workers. I can assure you that we have seen the people that treat their workers in a different way - better, listen to them, have communication in place - have benefited in a great way.''
The foundation set up what it said is a first for a global industry, an audited certification program for factories that agree to provide fair labor treatment and follow good health and safety procedures.
Membership in the foundation's programs has risen 50 percent in the past eight months. It now covers about 1,500 factories with 1.2 million workers, or about one-third of the 3 million workers in China's toy export industry.
Certification is no guarantee a business will be problem-free. Ewert said some ICTI Care factories have been involved in toy recalls. ICTI has removed certification for some factories - so far fewer than 20 - but more are forthcoming, he said.
There are good toy factories in China, of course, and the country just enacted a new labor law. But there's enough documentation of difficult conditions, of factory owners withholding wages and workers lacking legal protection, that the recalls shouldn't really come as a surprise. If all that matters is the absolute lowest-cost production, quality problems are bound to happen. It seems unreasonable to expect anything else.
Steve Toloken is a Plastics News staff reporter and Guangzhou, China-based Asia bureau chief.