WASHINGTON — Working conditions in Chinese toy factories, most of them plastics related, are not improving, even under the watchful eye of non-governmental organizations and private-sector social auditing, experts told members of Congress on Dec. 11.
The global toy industry's main certification program for ethical manufacturing, the ICTI Care Foundation, said it has stepped up probations and de-certifications and pushed for greater transparency in labor practices over the past year. China's domestic toy industry also launched its own safe toy initiatives and consumer guides through the China Toy and Juvenile Products Association.
But industry observers say labor conditions in China's toy factories have been stagnant over the past decade.
“The reasons sweatshops exist are not complicated: Sweatshops are the result of high-stakes intense cost and production pressures placed on local companies in China by multi-national enterprises. Unfortunately, during peak production seasons, the demands of the buyer can lead directly to coercive management politics and in many cases, forced labor to meet production demand,” said Brian Campbell, director of policy and legal programs and the International Labor Rights Forum, in testimony to the Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC).
A November report from China Labor Watch, a labor rights NGO, alleges poor working conditions at four Chinese factories that manufacture toys, much of them made of plastic, for major U.S. toy companies and retailers including Mattel, Fisher-Price, Disney, Hasbro and Crayola.
The serious labor abuses, ranging from extensive safety hazards and lack of safety training to excessive mandatory overtime, abusive management practices and ineffective audits, are primarily driven by profit, said China Labor Watch founder and executive director, Li Qiang; Kevin Slaten, program coordinator at China Labor Watch, served as his translator.
“Brand companies suppress the production prices in factories. The factories, in turn, maintain a profit on the backs of its workers. Toy companies have stringent demands in regards to product materials and quality so labor costs ultimately become are the only flexible input,” he said. “Workers who are situated at the bottom of the system are forced to bear the cost.”
The labor violations, while an injustice for workers, also pose risks to companies' investors, he said. For example, in two factories that Mattel directly controls that were investigated by China Labor Watch, the toy company owes more than $7 million in unpaid social insurance fees to 9,000 workers — a potentially big liability for violating Chinese labor laws that already are considered more lax than those in other parts of the world.
“We've seen this story repeated over and over again: American companies moving production to China to take advantage of cheap labor and poor labor enforcement and then reselling these goods back to the U.S. This business model, for all we can see, is unprecedented in human history,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the CECC chairman.
“We need to do something. We need to be able to tell our children that the person who made theirs toys, perhaps the mother of another child, worked in a good place where she made a decent living. We can't say that now,” Brown said.
William S. Reese, president and CEO of the International Youth Foundation and a member of the governance board of the ICTI CARE Foundation, said his group's auditing process provides only a snapshot of what goes on the Chinese toy factories.
He said the group has been able to provide support for workers through hotlines and investigations, and that factories with serious, habitual violations are dropped from their certification process — which means U.S. companies have voluntarily agreed to take their business elsewhere.
Reese believes ICTI standards are pushing the Chinese toy industry to be better.
But Earl Brown, labor lawyer and China Program Director at the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center, argued that ICTI's social auditing and worker outreach are insufficient.
“Social auditing is like staging Shakespeare's Hamlet without the prince of Denmark,” Brown said, calling the process “vague, imprecise and providing no testing record or public documentation.
“If we are looking to what the United States government should do, removed from the geopolitics, it should fund and support to a greater degree than it does the grassroots networks of workers in China and the workers' rights advocates like Li Qiang,” he said.