HONG KONG — China's large toy industry, including its plastics-related toy makers, faces potentially stepped up scrutiny on safety and factory working conditions.
The global toy industry's main certification program for ethical manufacturing among its supplier factories, for example, disclosed recently that it kicked out more than 200 factories last year, a 60 percent increase from previous years.
The ICTI Care Foundation, part of the New York-based industry group International Council of Toy Industries Ltd., said it started last year pushing for more disclosure on topics like factory floor work hours as part of its certification program.
As well, China's domestic toy industry this Spring launched its own voluntary "Campaign on Toys and Juvenile Products Safety" to educate consumers on safe toy buying, with nearly 100 local and global toy brands signing on.
The effort, led by the China Toy and Juvenile Products Association, said it will produce the first consumer guides for safe toy buying in the country, work with companies on improving product quality and assist China's government in market surveillance and intellectual property protection.
The Chinese effort comes after the New York-based ICTI Cares Foundation began last year taking a tougher line on requiring the 2,400 factories in its program to be more transparent with disclosing information.
"You know the transparency issue has been a big challenge for us, to convince factories to really tell us what are the hours that they are in fact working," said Christian Ewert, president and CEO of the ICTI Care Foundation, which administers the program for the ICTI.
"It was a decision by our board to say that if we do come across organizations or factories that do have a difficulty in showing us the relevant level of transparency… to leave the process," said Ewert, speaking in a January presentation at the Hong Kong Toy Fair. "Especially in Q3 and Q4 of 2012, [we had] a quite considerable increase in factories we terminated in the process."
Ewert said having factories leave the process, though, is not the end of their relationship with ICTI. He said the program works with those factories to improve, and gives them a six-month window to meet requirements.
More than half of them take steps to come back in, he said, adding that he expected the number of factory terminations to drop in the future after the spike last year.
He said that he was pleased that in spite of the increased terminations, last year overall saw an increasing number of toy factories commit to achieving the ICTI seal of compliance, which he said was "laudable" given the tough economic conditions facing toy factories.
He suggested tougher enforcement was needed to maintain the effectiveness of the ICTI certification, which allows participating factories to publicly state that they meet the global toy industry's labor treatment and workplace standards, potentially helping them win business from global toy brands.
"In terms of the credibility of the process and for the other ones participating in the program, we believe it's important that you stick to your rules," he said.
Factories in the ICTI Care program employ about 1.4 million workers and include about 80 percent of China's export toy factories. They group gets much less participation among factories targeting the local market, Ewert said.
More than 97 percent of the ICTI Care certified factories are in China, with a smattering elsewhere in Asia and two in Tunisia. Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau account for about 80 percent of world toy production, so the group has focused its effort on China, ICTI said.
The group also operates a call center in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, staffed by trained social workers, for factory workers to call to discuss potential workplace and personal problems.
It started that in 2010, in cooperation with a local Chinese non-governmental group, and said it has handed out 925,000 cards with the call center information to industry workers in addition to fielding calls from workers.