“The world of toys is a heaven for children, but may be a world of misery for toy factory workers.”
That's how a team of researchers from New York-based China Labor Watch (CLW) summarized findings of a recently released report that outlines working conditions at four toy factories in China's Guangdong Province.
Faced with long shifts and monthly wages of about $300 for 174 hours of work, the Chinese laborers, investigators say, assemble popular brand name products such as Barbie, Thomas the Tank Engine, Hot Wheels and other toys for Mattel, Hasbro, Disney, McDonald's, Wal-Mart and other American companies, often in dangerous working conditions and without workplace training.
“We found that the average working hours in these four factories are 11 hours a day, with more than 50 overtime hours a month, and at half of the factories, overtime hours had reached 100 hours, with the highest at above 130 hours,” the report said, based on accounts of investigators who worked undercover on assembly lines in "relatively well managed" factories.
According to Chinese labor law, laborers may not work more than 8 hours a day, although hours may be extended under certain circumstances with provisions for the workers' physical well-being.
“During the 11 hours that workers put in within a day, all they had was a 40-to-60-minutes lunch break,” it said. “This is an obvious violation of the right of workers to have adequate rest.”
Toy factory managers described in the report routinely asked workers to sign “voluntary overtime agreements,” which allowed the factory to violate labor laws and regulations with relative impunity.
Wages too low to live on
However, the vast majority of workers request overtime in order to supplement their basic earnings.
“The wages are too low,” 27-year-old worker Li Jintao told VOA. “My monthly salary is 2,500 RMB ($360), but after deductions for social security, I make only a little more than 2,000 RMB ($292) per month.”
Although Chinese laws require foreign-invested enterprises to pay social security for workers, the CLW report said “one of the factories followed the provisions strictly.”
"One factory did not pay the social insurance or the housing fund for the workers," the report said. "Another paid only a portion to some workers; some factories even forced the workers to sign papers saying that they were willing to give up their right to receive social insurance and housing funds."
Li, who left his home village at 14 to work in the city, says his monthly salary of $292 includes payment for two to three hours of overtime per day. The 2016 minimum wage standard for Dongguan and Foshan, the cities where three of the toy factories are located, is $223 per month. The minimum wage standard for Shenzhen, home to the fourth factory, is $300.
While workers at all four factories earned roughly 5 percent more than the local standard minimum wage, Li said it's still not enough to maintain a reasonable standard of living. He plans to quit his job and return home.
No safety training
The report accused the four factories of negligence in pre-job safety training, and for failure to provide workers with masks, gloves and other safety products.
In the packaging plant of Mattel's Chang'an manufacturing facility, a commonly used toxic solvent — thought to be isoamyl acetate because of its distinctive bananalike odor — was distributed in unlabeled plastic drinking bottles. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says isoamyl acetate is considered dangerous to life after five hours of exposure at certain concentration levels.
The CLW report said the vast majority of workers live and eat in the factories where they work. Some workers complained about poor-quality canteen food and that their dormitories, which are old and dirty, commonly have hazardous exposed electrical wires.
Like most China-based toy-exporters, all four of the factories investigated were accredited by the International Toy Association (ICTI) and have received certificates from ICTI Care, a decade-old program that aims to raise ethical standards and protect laborers in the global toy manufacturing industry.
Employers: 'conditions better than ever'
"Our project focuses on China," Mark Robertson, a London-based ICTI Care spokesperson, said. "We provide certification for more than 1,200 toy factories. We also work in Vietnam, India and other countries, representing 650,000 workers."
Robertson says the industry's current conditions, from shift duration to workers' pay to health and safety, are better than they have ever been, and that China's ICTI-Care-certified factories are stabilizing hours and increasing wages.
CLW, however, said ICTI standards violate China's own labor provisions.
“(ICTI) is an association backed by Mattel, Disney and Hasbro, which allows factory workers to work 72 hours a week, and even 78 hours while the factory has to fill an order,” Li Qiang, CLW's executive director, told VOA.
CLW sees no improvement
“It's not that there's no improvement at all. Some details may have been adjusted, but the overall environment for the toy industry has not improved,” added Li, who began investigating southern China's toy factories as an undercover laborer in 1999.
“At that time, we worked more than 10 hours a day, and it was like a prison,” he said. “Now workers still work more than 10 hours a day.”
CLW researchers say companies that operate the factories are fully capable of raising wages and improving work conditions, but that most companies choose not to address the issues.
At time of publication, Disney, Mattel and Wal-Mart had not responded to VOA's request for comments. However, Disney issued a statement in response to a June survey by CLW.
“These issues have been investigated and resolved,” it said. “Disney will continue to encourage and rely on factory owners, business associates and governments to promote safe, inclusive and respectful workplaces where Disney-brand products are made.”
An earlier version of this report misspelled the name of ICTI Care spokesperson Mark Robertson, and misstated the number of workers the group represents. VOA regrets the errors.