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Children in China Pay Price for Our Cheap Toys

by Craig and Marc Kielburger

For children in China's southern Guangdong province, the holiday season is the most gruelling time of the year.

That's because instead of receiving toys, they make them. Guangdong is the epicentre of China's multi-billion dollar toy industry, with upwards of 1.5 million workers in 5,000 factories. They make everything from stuffed animals to video games, most of which are exported to places like Canada and the U.S. in time for Christmas.

Many of those workers are children from impoverished rural areas. Their desperate parents are often tricked by factory owners into signing contracts they cannot read, unknowingly committing their children to work in the country's burgeoning industrial cities.

While it's impossible to know just how many of them are making our toys - child labourers are usually undocumented - even a single visit to Guangdong's factories leaves no doubt that the problem is an epidemic. In many of them, rows and rows of children, some younger than 10, sit at tiny desks assembling toys. They are usually housed in giant warehouse-like buildings with poor ventilation, meaning chemicals and toxins never escape. There is a bitter taste in the air. Most of the workers are girls - second-class citizens under China's one-child policy.

The children work 80-hour weeks and earn as little as a dollar a day, but still have to pay deductions for their often dilapidated accommodations. If they don't work fast enough, they are beaten.

During the holiday rush, when orders from the West increase dramatically, it's not uncommon for factory employees to work seven days a week, with overtime, for months at a time. That kind of workload can be fatal.

China does have laws banning the use of labourers under 16, as well as restrictions on overtime.

But in a rapidly expanding economy that relies heavily on feeding the world's insatiable demand for cheap goods, those regulations are often ignored. The country now produces 75 per cent of the world's toys - exports worth more than $15 billion a year. While fewer than 4 per cent of the world's children are American, they consume 40 per cent of the world's toys.

That's the troubling irony of today's global marketplace.

Far too often, our desire for the best deals on the latest products comes at the expense of the workers in developing countries, commonly children.

But as this year's holiday season reaches its peak, and many of us head to the malls to check people off our Christmas lists, it's worth remembering that, as consumers, we all have the ability to take action against child labour with the decisions we make every day.

A recent news poll found that nearly two-thirds of Canadians will be buying toys among their Christmas gifts this year. That translates into enormous consumer power. Ask questions when making a purchase to ensure it is made fairly and safely.

If stores don't know a product's history, find out from the company that manufactured it. If they don't know either, voice your concern over the lack of such vital information. Companies need to know that consumers will not stand for the use of child labour.

And why not pressure governments and corporations to team up with NGOs to implement a "child labour-free" labelling system for toys and other products? Similar labels exist in the carpet industry. Expanding them across the market would make socially conscious shopping easy for everyone.

Perhaps then, the holiday season will take on a whole new meaning for children in places like Guangdong.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are children's rights activists and co-founded Free The Children, which is active in the developing world.

© Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2007

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