BEIJING - As more of the world's Christmas glitter is being made in China,
cut-throat competition and lack of labor protection have transformed Santa Claus
workshops into appalling sweatshops where 1.5 million Chinese peasant girls work
12 or even 14 hours a day, inhaling toxic fumes.
Santa's toys are churned
out in more than 6,000 factories in the South-east China's coastal regions and
shipped across the country to appease one new insatiable Chinese deity -- the
commercialized version of Christmas.
In the weeks before Christmas, this new
god is worshipped everywhere across China's urbanized coast and big metropolises.
Big department stores begin selling piles of Christmas tree balls and strings
of lights, wreathes of pine cones and plastic pine boughs, hand-embroidered Santa
stockings of various sizes, plastic angels and big wooden nutcracker dolls.
Festive Yuletide decorations are everywhere - on old courtyards walls and glittery
shopping malls and windows, on sidewalks and next to Communist Party propaganda
Ruled by a party, whose official ideology scorns at religion,
China is quickly becoming the world's major producer of Christmas toys and decorations.
China now makes 70 percent of the world's toys and its exports have doubled in
just eight years.
In addition, China exported about 1.4 billion U.S. dollars
in Christmas-related goods in the first 10 months of this year, more than half
of them to the United States, according to China's customs office.
amount of these Christmas toys and decorations is also ending up inside China.
Behind all the Christmas glitter are long, tiring shifts -- all done by women
between 17 and 23 years old who live in cramped company dormitories, 15 to a room,
earning just 30 cents an hour.
A 10-year campaign spearheaded by the Hong
Kong Christian Industrial Committee to improve basic rights for the toy workers
on Chinese mainland has barely begun to change the shabby treatment of the girls.
”The Chinese toy factory workers are more exploited than before,” says May
Wong of the Asia Monitor Resource Center, which together with the Hong Kong Christian
Industrial Committee has conducted detail investigations into the toy industry.
”Wages have actually gone down, there is so much surplus labor,” agrees Monina
Wong (no relation), a researcher with the Hong Kong Coalition for the Charter
on the Safe Protection of Toys who is preparing a fresh study on China's toys
Workers still have no contracts, unions and enjoy little protection
from owners who sometimes withhold part or even all of the wages due them, she
Most of China's toy manufacturers are funded by foreign companies and
the All China Federation of Trade Unions, a Communist Party-controlled union for
the whole country, has very little influence in the foreign investment or joint
Hong Kong and Taiwanese companies that make goods for
the likes of Disney, Hasbro and Mattel have long ago shifted production to the
Chinese mainland, but cheap, unregulated labor has also prompted manufacturers
to leave countries like Thailand or Indonesia.
”One of the main reasons they
are moving to China is the increase in workers' activism in countries like Indonesia,”
argues May Wong. ”Foreign companies know that in China, the government does not
allow workers to organize and bargain collectively -- that is why they like to
While workers may form many informal groups to protect their rights,
the open ones with independent or political objectives are subjected to severe
crackdowns by the government. Leaders are often jailed, dismissed or even beaten
up by security personnel.
Toy factories hire the least skilled workers because
many of the tasks in producing Christmas decor or toys, like painting colors with
a brush or spraying, or clipping in the pieces together, do not require special
Factory girls have just two days off a month although by law they
are entitled to a 40-hour work week and weekends.
As temporary migrant workers
hired during the peak order season, the girls are rarely covered by medical insurance
although this is also compulsory under Chinese labor law.
”The factory owners,
who tend to be Asians, say they are being pressed by the Western companies,” says
Dr Anita Chan, an expert on Chinese labor issues at the Australian National University.
”They complain their profit margin is getting smaller because the Western brand
name companies press them to improve work conditions but do not want to share
the cost in raising labor standards.”
An investigation by the Hong Kong-based
Asia Monitor Resource Center into the price of a Mattel Barbie doll, half of whose
supply are made in China, found that of the 10 dollar retail price, 8 dollars
goes to transportation, marketing, retailing, wholesale and profit for Mattel.
Of the remaining 2 dollars, one dollar is shared by the management and transportation
in Hong Kong, 65 cents shared by the raw materials from Taiwan, Japan, the United
States and Saudi Arabia.
The remaining 35 cents is earned by producers in
China for providing factory sites, labor and electricity
was two years ago, and since then the toy market has become more and more competitive,”
says May Wong.
The toy coalition campaign took off in 1994 with key players
being the Asia Monitor Resource Center and the Hong Kong Christian Industrial
The coalition was formed to help compensate the victims of 1993
Zhili toy factory fire in Shenzhen, southern China, and to improve the working
conditions of toy industry workers.
The fire, which broke out in 1993 at a
Hong Kong-owned company in Shenzhen, left 87 workers dead and 47 injured. At the
time of the fire, some 400 workers were on the site producing Christmas toys for
the Italian toy brand Chicco.
Seven years passed before the victims received
compensation. The company gave 1.5 million Hong Kong dollars (192,000 U.S. Dollars)
to the workers but this was never paid out because a Chinese court withheld the
list of victims' names. In 1999, the money went to a Chinese mainland charity.
Then, campaigners traced the names of the victims themselves and gathered
120 names of families scattered in five Chinese provinces. The company eventually
paid each 10,227 renminbi (1,290 U.S. Dollars) -- far less than what they needed
for their medical fees and rehabilitation.
Copyright 2002 IPS