THE BLOG
12/22/2014 11:51 am ET Updated Feb 21, 2015

Toys from Abusive Chinese Factories Bring No Holiday Cheer

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Here's a question to ponder this Holiday season -- what do toy brands like Barbie, Mickey Mouse and Thomas the Tank Engine have in common? What about the companies that produce these toys -- Mattel, Disney, Fisher Price and other major toy companies such as Crayola and Hasbro? Many parents might say that the shared commonality of these toys and their corporate manufacturers is their young children's affinity for them, especially around the holiday season when corporate advertising and marketing launches into overdrive. Many parents may be planning or have already purchased these and other toys as holiday gifts for their youngsters.

Here's one common factor that many parents will likely not consider about the toys they purchase as gifts. According to a recently released 66-page report from the nonprofit organization China Labor Watch (CLW), these aforementioned popular toy brands and many others are manufactured in Chinese factories that have been found to have repeatedly committed a vast number of worker rights violations. This most recent CLW investigation was a follow-up to one conducted and reported on in 2007. Disturbingly, many of the same abuses reported then were discovered once more, seven years later. Despite efforts to bring attention to these harmful labor conditions, the conditions in Chinese factories persist, and Americans continue to buy up these products by the millions. As for the American companies that sell them, finding ways to shirk any responsibility for deplorable factory conditions is their primary public relations concern.

The CLW report states:

Many toy companies divide their toy orders among dozens or hundreds of factories in order to ensure that their orders in any given factory only consists of a small proportion of that factory's total orders usually no more than 20 percent. Toy companies will also use this as a basis for avoiding responsibility for poor labor conditions. For example, if CLW uncovers labor rights violations at a Disney supplier factory in China, Disney might respond that it only maintains a small number of orders in the plant and is unable to influence the factory's behavior.

Parents should consider the following harsh realities uncovered by CLW:

Workers who create these toy products often make just over a dollar an hour, nowhere near a living wage. Many live in cramped company dormitories with inadequate bathroom facilities for the number of people who occupy them. Many receive inadequate or no safety training. Many are forced to work excessive overtime hours in violation of Chinese labor laws. Many are provided inadequate safety equipment or work on poorly maintained and potentially dangerous equipment. None of the factories investigated by CLW conducted fire safety training, and one even locked emergency escape doors and had fire escape routes obstructed. Unfortunately, the grievance procedures for factory workers to file complaints or report incidents are ineffective or nonexistent.

Here's one that might strike a chord with the smartphone generation -- a 2013 CLW report on Mattel factories reported that in one factory, "A worker who checks his cell phone will have that day's working hours reset to zero, effectively not paying the worker for the actual work that he did."

These are only some of the numerous issues reported. Taken as a whole, the report describes a truly nightmarish and inhumane work environment that would appall many in the Western world. Behind the friendly plastic smiles of Mickey Mouse and Thomas the Tank engine lays immense human suffering and worker abuse.

Eighty-five percent of all children's toys that are sold in the United States come from China. Furthermore, these toys often come with too many hazards -- burning, choking risks for small children, or toxics in or on the toys. It can be difficult for parents to know what toys are safe for their youngsters. Some are recalled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. (See cpsc.gov for the latest recalls.)

A few examples of recent recalls: A singing monkey toy, sold in Cracker Barrel restaurants, has a battery compartment that can overheat and cause burns. Another is a "Dream on Me" playhouse that reportedly can collapse and pose a strangulation risk to young children. Yet another is a "Hello Kitty" whistle, distributed by McDonald's, in which a small internal piece can come detached and be swallowed or choked on by young users. The proposed remedy from McDonald's: "Consumers should immediately take the whistle away from children and return it to any McDonald's for a free replacement toy and either a yogurt tube or a bag of apple slices." All of these dangerous products were manufactured in China.

The Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act (H.R. 4842) was introduced earlier this year by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) It would require U.S. companies to disclose its contracting practices in annual reports that find instances of "child labor, forced labor, slavery, and human trafficking." It would also require the Secretary of Labor "to develop and publish annually on the Internet website of the Department of Labor a list of top 100 companies adhering to supply chain labor standards, as established under federal and international guidelines." This would be an important step in holding toy companies accountable for the inhumane conditions they permit by doing business with abusive factories in China.

In the meantime, being a socially-conscious shopper is one way to let these corporations know that Americans do not approve of products built on the backs of Chinese serf-labor. One easy method is to check the country-of-origin label on products to see where they came from. Parents should know about the products their children request and not give into demands or nagging because the youngster wanted the products to fit in with their friends. These toy companies want their young consumers to be compliant, vulnerable and ever-hooked on fashionable fads.

Is such crass commercialism worth the cost of human suffering?