Defective Toys and Worker Exploitation in the PRC

The hullabaloo in the international capitalist media over defective Chinese-made toys and the massive Mattel recall in mid-August 2007 — including 7.3 million Polly Pocket™ play sets and a quarter-million Pixar cars “Sarge” (die-cast military jeeps) — should remind us where our solidarity must lie: with the exploited Chinese workers on the job.  They are the real victims of the perverse burgeoning of “full-fledged capitalist restoration, including growing foreign economic domination” inside China, what labor activist Ellen David-Friedman has called “the sweatshop of the world.”

Toy Industry Workers

There are over 10,000 toy factories in China, almost all working for export.  They are estimated to account for the production of some 80 percent [!] of the planet’s toys; many of those factories sub-contract.  Mattel is believed to source its products from some 3,000 factories across China.  The PRC accounted for 86.2 percent of all toys sold in the United States in 2006, up nearly 9% on 2005.  Wherever the factories, many in the toy labor force are migrant laborers from China’s poorest provinces.   Large numbers migrate to the coast, especially Guangdong Province, which accounts for nearly 70 percent of all toy manufacture in China.  Numerous such factories are owned by Hong Kong investors and geared to “race-to-the-bottom” low-cost hyper-labor-intensive production.

Well over 150 million migrant workers from rural areas have crowded into the cities over the past decade in search of economic survival.  They may regularly not get paid for months at a time.  Public healthcare across the economy is declining to the point where many millions of working families cannot afford to seek medical care or risk huge debt if they do.  Migrant workers are at especial risk.  Large numbers of workers in the toy industry have now lost their jobs directly as a result of the Mattel recall, and its fallout continues.  They are the direct victims of their local bosses’ abuses and the lack of safety control.  But of course they and their stories and suffering, literally inscribed in the toys they make, remain invisible.

Substandard working conditions, few safety precautions, absurd minimum wages, and mass collusion in this morass by numerous transnationals loom behind the reality of such manufacture of “cheap” goods at literally any “price” when it comes  to those whose sweat and blood produce them

During off-site interviews with SACOM researchers in 2005 and 2006, 82 workers at five Wal-Mart toy factories in Guangdong Province gave detailed accounts concerning wage and hour violations, unsafe working conditions, unsanitary worker housing, hash punishments and heavy fines, deprivation of labor contract protection, non-provision of social security, illegal firings and suppression by factory management.1  At four of these factories, some 80 percent of the workers are young rural women migrants aged 18-30, most from the interior provinces of Hunan, Hubei, Sichuan, Yunnan, Jiangxi, Henan, and Hebei.  So the oppression and exploitation reported has a clear gendered dimension.  All factories had a minimum 6-day, 11-hour regimen, increasing with overtime to 78 hours a week, and “in one month their working hours reached a record high of 336 hours.”  A 22-year-old female migrant worker described her workday:

We start our work at 7:30 A.M. and then we have our lunch break at 11:30 A.M.  Then, at 1 P.M., we punch our time cards and resume work.  We have a one-hour dinner break between 5 P.M. and 6 P.M.  The long working day is not yet finished.  We continue to do compulsory overtime work until 9 P.M. or 10 P.M.  Every one of my sisters feels exhausted after working for almost 12 hours.  (p. 11)

Most of these workers were earning 600-800 Renminbi monthly (at current exchange rate of 7.6 RMB per $US), despite excessive overtime work throughout the month — overtime they were obliged to accept when ordered by their bosses.  There is no paid sick leave or rest day.  Their hourly wage worked out to 2.04 RMB, less than half the legal minimum of 4.12 RMB.  Housing is deplorable and canteen food even worse: “Twelve male adults are squeezed into one dormitory room.  There is virtually no private or personal space and the communal bathrooms are dirty.  Worse still, workers report waiting for one hour on average to get into the shower.”  More than 30% of their earnings are normally deducted by the employer for accommodation and canteen provisions.

At one factory in Shenzhen, managers reportedly conducted “training sessions” with workers on how to answer questions from Wal-Mart’s auditors in preparation for pre-announced inspections.  They warmed workers: “If you answer auditors’ questions incorrectly, we get to lose orders and you get to lose your job.”  Workers may be given a “crib sheet” or “coaching script” (translated in full, pp. 18-21) to prepare for an outside Wal-Mart audit.

Mattel is very concerned now about “quality control.”  At all of the SACOM-investigated Wal-Mart factories, quality control workers commonly suffer from eye problems.  They are required to do eye-intensive inspections of the semi-finished products for long hours without rest (usually 11-13 hours per “normal shift”).  The consequence is that such workers generally suffer from stress, eye strain, and short-sightedness over time.  Wal-Mart inspectors reportedly paid almost no attention to worker safety: their concern was solely “product quality,” not the health of those laboriously checking that “quality.”

In one toy factory, in the spraying department, workers suffer severe headaches even when they put on face masks at work.  The ventilation system is substandard and the paint used is toxic, issuing “an irritating smell that is hazardous” according to workers.  But their demands to have this chemical changed have been ignored (p. 14).

Would Mattel think of “recalling” products stateside because the Chinese workers at the production point run by their “vendors” are subjected to such gross abuse, their fundamental rights routinely violated on the job, they themselves exposed daily to “toxic” poisoning?  Of course it wouldn’t.

Surplus Value and Its Super-Exploitation

This outsourced international toy industry — which Mattel and other corporations dominate —  produces, distributes, and exploits surplus value in a classic instantiation of the new transnational capitalism.2  Foreign-financed companies, according to the latest Chinese customs data, control about 60% of China’s exports.  The planetary toy industry can be analyzed as a paradigm of its contradictions and abuses.  Under capitalist restoration in contemporary China,

[t]he considerable costs of the pro-market transition (rising unemployment, economic insecurity, inequality, intensified exploitation, declining health and education conditions, exploding government debt, and unstable prices) are not transitional side effects but rather basic preconditions of economic growth cum rapid capital accumulation under Chinese conditions.

As James Petras has observed:

[t]he ruling class free-marketeers in command of Chinese policy have gutted the public welfare system in favor of privatization, forcing Chinese workers, employees and shop owners to save to pay for education, housing, health care and retirement and thus have less income for domestic consumption.  Chinese savings to pay for basic services limits domestic consumption and forces the Chinese regime to realize profits via exports.

Moreover, China’s topography of breakneck expansion provides a powerful lens for examining the broader capitalist dynamics of uneven development and overproduction, in this instance within the frame of the shortcomings and contradictions of outsourced toy manufacture.3

Economies of Hyper-Scale

As toy Capital fuels the Chinese market, exploiting Chinese labor power to the hilt, a mega-corporation like Mattel is also rendered culpable by the very dint of its size.  As evidenced by this most recent massive recall, it cannot effectively control the gargantuan network of surplus value extraction that its oversees.  It’s just too big.

Factory Heads in Shame: the Foshan Suicide

It is also evident that in numerous instances, the local factory bosses are principally to blame for serious abuses at their plants.  In the wake of the Fisher-Price recall of 1.5 million pre-school toys in early August 2007, a co-owner of Lee Der toy company in Foshan committed suicide at his plant, which was subsequently shut down, leaving 5,000 workers jobless.   As one worker there said: “We didn’t know what was in the paint when we made the toys, we were shocked, we found out from the newspapers.”  The boss’s last living act was to ensure that all his workers got their final pay packet.  Now they are out on the street.  Is Mattel concerned about the 5,000 employees fired at the Lee Der plant?  Evidently not.

Chinese Consumers: “Of Course We Have Concerns But What Can You Do?”

Chinese parents are left largely uninformed about what may be substandard products and their risks.  The latest news about Mattel’s recall has apparently gone unmentioned in most of China’s state-run media, following a familiar pattern of government-ordered silence surrounding other high-profile international recalls of Chinese exports over the past year.  Chinese consumer protection is of course not a concern of Mattel.

A recent report published in the China Daily English-language newspaper indicated that many thousands of kids are injured every year by dangerous toys.  An assessment released by China’s quality-control agency a few months ago stated that more than 20 percent of toys made for the domestic market were substandard or potentially dangerous.

Meanwhile, Chinese parents say they can do little but trust the authorities and exercise care when selecting toys for their young ones.  “Of course we have concerns but what can you do?” said a 60-year-old retiree surnamed Peng who was choosing a toy car for his grandson at the Hongqiao market.  “You just have to be careful and examine the quality yourself.” 

China-Bashing in the Media

The Mattel recall has provided Western media with another opportunity to malign “brand China,” in a kind of “Orientalism” that sees Chinese industry as plagued by endemic deficiency.  In such discourse, the Chinese economy is constructed paradoxically as a sort of “negative inversion” of Western capitalism, bereft of necessary standards and inundating the American household with a tsunami of low-cost products.  Commentators recently unleashed a barrage of vitriolic China-bashing, projecting China as an industrial colossus threatening the “physical health” of the American family.  Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) struck a characteristic chord:  “We can’t wait any longer for China to crack down on its lax safety standards.  This needs to stop now before more children and more families are put at risk.”  

Evident here is the “Eurocentric” even “neo-colonial” aspect of this recall and the discourse it generates: the “lax, toxic” East vs. the “civilized” West.  A discourse of “invasion,” “contamination.”  This has been bolstered by recent discoveries of “toxic” China-made toothpaste and pet food.  A certain Sinophobia among North American consumers is being fed by such media coverage and innuendo.  Whatever the abuses, it is important to remember — as labor organizer Ellen David-Friedman stresses, based on her work there in the Pearl River Delta — that China does not conform to many Americans’ depiction of it as a monolithically repressive and exploitative state.

Meanwhile Mattel has generally been lauded stateside for its belated new stringent regimen of quality checks on its “products” from China — although significantly, no specified improvement in working conditions and workplace safety for its “producers.”  Coupled with a public letter from Mattel to parents entitled “because your children are our children,” a videotaped message cum apology from Mattel CEO Bob Eckert (with a prominent link on the Yahoo! homepage) spells out what “forceful” measures the firm is taking to “protect” North American consumers: “As a parent of four children myself, I know that absolutely nothing is more important than the safety and well-being of children.”

Necessary Bonds of Solidarity

International solidarity should be with the multitude of Chinese working families laboring under a system where they have little say in determining anything on the job or off and are themselves at risk from faulty goods churned out by local capitalist production.  The situation across the PRC is worsening, reality’s antipode to all the hype in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics:

A rapidly widening polarization — in a society that was among the most egalitarian — is occurring between extremes of wealth at the top and growing ranks of workers and peasants at the bottom whose conditions of life are daily worsening. [. . .]  Rampant corruption unites party and state authorities and enterprise managers with the new private entrepreneurs in a web of alliances that are enriching a burgeoning capitalist class, while the working classes are exploited in ways that have not been seen for over half a century.

Disclosing Worker Exploitation: Hegemony’s Contradictions

It is a matter of record that China Labour Watch and the China Labour Bulletin, major sources for reporting on workplace abuses in China, distributed even on progressive sites like LabourStart, have been financed by the notorious U.S. government institution National Endowment for DemocracySACOM apparently also has questionable connections with the Solidarity Center of AFL-CIO.  The Solidarity Center has issued an extensive report on the struggle for workers rights in China from the standpoint of the U.S. labor establishment.   The NED has been strongly criticized for what it is by its antipode, the International Endowment for Democracy.

This means it is especially hard to come by detailed empirical studies of the actual situation in China in English or another Western language that have not originated with or been reported by an organization with ties to the U.S. government.  This information on abuses is doubtless generally correct, but it comes to us directly funded in part by Uncle Sam.  In my experience, that is compounded by the fact that young critical Chinese may, in part flowing from a powerful sense of national pride, be very reluctant to accept data and reports from such NGOs operating with the blessing and funding of the U.S. government, which they perceive as a form of neo-imperialism in the false “name” of the Chinese workers.

These remain at present the contradictions of hegemony and knowledge creation and control, especially regarding labor realities in the PRC.  For that reason, the present essay has used SACOM materials, specifically on the toy industry and exploitation there, but understands the questionable aspects of doing so.  We need to move forward to more independent hard data on worker exploitation not bankrolled by Washington or the organized labor hierarchy in the U.S.  Progressive sites like rarely have articles on China.

Press for Change

Dangers to kids anywhere on the planet from toys that are potentially defective have to be prevented.  Not just by rigid “quality control” measures dictated by Management Supreme Command.  Inside the behemoth, Chinese workers banding together to demand adequate wages and contracts and livable working conditions are one pathway forward to transformation toward more worker-controlled safer production.  At the moment, this may seem “utopian,” as it becomes increasingly more common in the PRC for management and local government to respond with violence to peaceful workers’ protests

At one factory SACOM investigated, some workers’ union connected with the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) “may have existed; however, none of the workers interviewed know what their union does.  No one has ever met face-to-face with the union chairperson.”  In one worker’s words (p. 26): “We all are forced to keep our resentment to ourselves, there is nowhere to register complaints . . . and we are afraid if we do complain, we will be fired or receive wage deductions.”

Yet a new labor militancy is ever more manifest in

[t]he growing (though somewhat fragmented) struggles of Chinese workers to defend the rights purportedly guaranteed to them by the pre-reform regime, and to protect themselves from some of the worst forms of exploitation under the new system in the face of ongoing government repression of all independent worker and community organizing.

The elite basis of Chinese rule, in which an estimated 5% of the population controls over 50% of all private assets, is facing ever more mounting opposition from unemployed and migrant workers, and exploited peasants.  Notably, the government-controlled ACFTU, often regarded as a useless, even imaginary labor bureaucracy fixture, took an active role in 2006 in grassroots organizing of workplace unions for over 30,000 employees at 66 Wal-Mart outlets in the PRC.  Crystallizing perhaps sooner than we can expect, an IWW grassroots militant network across the PRC would be a major step forward toward the counter-hegemonic base for a more antiauthoritarian socialist society unknown in China’s past.  Robert Weil, envisioning a different tack, is guardedly optimistic:

In the factories and on the farms, workers and peasants in China not only are resisting the new forms of capitalist exploitation, but have memories of another world that they already know is possible. [. . .]  No easy prediction is possible as to what direction the struggle will take in the coming period.  But as they move forward, the Chinese working classes may also look backward as they find their own path again to a new socialist society.

The focus for interim struggle outside China should be to expose the blind spots of these outsourcing mega-firms like Mattel and disclose in concrete detail the malpractices on the shop floor they collude with for greater profit, grossly indifferent to the real situation of their exploited work force.  The key factor of gendered exploitation of young women in the toy industry needs foregrounding.  Statistics on child labor remain highly secret, and its use needs to be brought out in the open.  One of its roots is the state’s under-investment in education, especially rural schools.

One hands-on example others can look to is being set by Ellen and Stuart Friedman, long-time Vermont labor activists who are committed to countering capitalist trends in China and are returning to work actively there full-time.  In the fight against sweatshops, Jeff Ballinger has concrete ideas, including empowering workers to monitor their own factories for abuses — part of the broader task of gearing globally for a revolution in worker rights: “From the standpoint of the labor rights activists, the situation calls for a global civic movement of unions and NGOs to hold multinational corporations accountable for the gross exploitation of workers and the environment” (p. 18).  It’s a war on the workers, it’s a world-wide war, “and it’s time we started calling the shots.”


1  On SACOM, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, a Hong Kong-based NGO, with links to a number of initiatives funded in part by the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy, see discussion below.

2   Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff offer a powerful framework for examining how surplus value is produced, appropriated and distributed globally to intensify exploitation, see their recent New Departures in Marxian Theory and other titles, such as Re/presenting class (Duke UP, 2001); their joint homepage is at

3  Nike, now the “icon for the new China,” and the symbol of success and “coolest brand” for its urban middle class, provides another concrete corporate paradigm for such analysis.  In Indonesia, thousands of workers in vendor plants working with Nike recently went on strike protesting the cutbacks in production there, because Nike is trying to find local firms that will deliver a pair of shoes to Nike for even as low as 7 USD [!], instead of the going rate of 11 USD in Indonesian outsourcing today.  As anti-sweatshop activist Jeff Ballinger noted recently: “They don’t want to jigger with the system that’s been so good to them. [. . .] It’s a predatory system, but it works well for Nike.”  Ballinger’s continued work watchdogging Nike (long through his organization Press for Change) is a paradigm for how to put sustained effective pressure on a major subcontracting industrial giant.

Bill Templer writes on politics from several peripheries and teaches at a working-class university in the Thai provincial north.

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