|Just like Santa’s workshop! Except these elves work 15 hours a day, 7 days a week and earn 30 cents an hour.|
This post is a follow up to [The New Gilded Age].
The Guardian has [a chilling article], written by the author of [The Real Toy Story] — an exposé of the Chinese toy manufacturing industry — that details just how sordid are the conditions that give rise to the kinds of product recalls that American toy companies have experienced recently. The article’s author, Eric Clark, details the advantages of moving toy production to China for American companies, like Mattel, that have their eyes forever focused on the bottom line: plentiful cheap labor, elimination of plant overhead and ability to negotiate lowered production costs on new products, which reduces further their competitive risks. But his description of conditions for Chinese workers reads like something out of our own dark industrial past:
The workers, mostly young women, shuffle from building to building. They could be on their way to school – if they did not appear so exhausted from working most of their waking hours. They have traveled in by bus from rural areas up to three days journey away – part of the biggest movement of people in human history. Shifts can last 15 hours a day or more, seven days a week – unlawful, but not uncommon in the peak toymaking season. Inside the fetid dormitories, their only living space, and often packed illegally with as many as 22 to a room, they collapse into curtained-off bunks. At lunch breaks, thousands of them in uniform, ID cards dangling on ribbons, pour onto the streets.
Compare that with this [excerpt from a letter] I found from a young woman who worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, writing about her working conditions in early 20th century New York:
The day’s work was supposed to end at six in the afternoon. But, during most of the year we youngsters worked overtime until 9 p.m. every night except Fridays and Saturdays. No, we did not get additional pay for overtime. At this point it is worth recording the generocity (sic) of the Triangle Waist Co. by giving us a piece of apple pie for supper instead of additional pay! Working men and women of today who receive time and one half and at times double time for overtime will find it difficult to understand and to believe that the workers of those days were evidently willing to accept such conditions of labor without protest. However, the answer is quite simple — we were not organized and we knew that individual protest amounted to the loss of one’s job. No one in those days could afford the luxory (sic) of changing jobs — there was no unemployment insurance, there was nothing better than to look for another job which will not be better than the one we had. Therefore, we were, due to our ignorance and poverty, helpless against the power of the exploiters… As you will note, the days were long and the wages low — my starting wage was just one dollar and a half a week — a long week — consisting more often than not, of seven days. Especially was this true during the season, which in those days were longer than they are now. I will never forget the sign which on Saturday afternoons was posted on the wall near the elevator stating — “if you don’t come in on Sunday you need not come in on Monday”!
Truly, the sins of the past are upon us again. Instead of providing incentives to Chinese manufacturers to improve the lot of the young women who produce our toys (which might require returning more profits to the producers), or moving production back home (which would entail even further reduction in profit) American companies are more than willing to exploit conditions that would be illegal in their own country in order to maintain their margins. According to Clark, of the $10 retail cost of a Barbie doll produced in China, only 35 cents goes back to the people who produced it. Eager to cut their own costs and improve productivity, is it any wonder that Chinese subcontractors cut corners?
This opens up a dilemma for American consumers: the toys under the Christmas tree are tainted — if not literally with lead paint, than figuratively with support of an unjust labor market. How much would consumers be willing to spend — in the form of higher-priced domestically-produced goods, for example — to put pressure on the toy industry to change its ways?