There's more than one reason to be wary of toys on the shelves of your local Wal-Mart. After dozens of recalls over the last few months, consumers have grown to distrust toy manufacturers and justly so. Lead paint, faulty manufacturing, poor materials and dangerous components have made toy shopping a treacherous ordeal. But these dangerous toys aren't putting just our children at risk: they also endanger the lives of the factory workers who make them.
The same forces that make manufacturers cut corners on paint and plastic also make manufacturers cut corners on labor costs. Working long hours in appalling conditions - often with toxic chemicals and no protection - laborers in China bear the true cost of America's low price toys. Stores like Wal-Mart demand bottom dollar costs, but the costs come back not only to us and our children, but to entire communities overseas. Today's news stories regarding children making clothing for the Gap, Inc. in India's factories are another harsh reminder of that truth.
Last week's Congressional hearing on toy safety and working conditions in China's factories highlighted the fact that without ensuring the safety of employees in supplier factories, it is challenging at best to ensure the safety of the products that come out of those factories and ultimately the safety of our children.
In addition, the National Labor Committee released a new report that paints a detailed, intimate picture of life in a Wal-Mart supplier sweatshop. Called "Toys of Misery," the report details working conditions laborers must endure to produce products for Wal-Mart.
And two years ago Lee Scott pledged [PDF] to become a leader in ethical sourcing standards. Two years later, the company has made little progress towards that goal. A new study from the International Labor Rights Fund documents Wal-Mart's progress (or lack thereof) and calls on the company to do better. You can view the full report and download it here.
Wal-Mart's pressure on supplier companies means workers overseas work without contracts, for little pay and frequent abuse and mistreatment. No one wants to teach their children these values. In light of recent toy recalls and all of the information recently released, it is not a stretch to draw a connection between the pressure Wal-Mart puts on it suppliers for low cost merchandise, the problems at these factories and the safety issues of the products. If Wal-Mart and the Walton family are truly committed to improving product safety and worker conditions, the company should spend the money to do it. All of us deserve higher standards from the world's largest retailer.
Wal-Mart Watch is a joint project of The Center for Community & Corporate Ethics, a 501c3 organization devoted to studying the impact of large corporations on society, and its advocacy arm, Five Stones.