Sweatshop Barbie: Exploitation of Third World Labor

By Foek, Anton | The Humanist, January-February 1997 | Go to article overview
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Sweatshop Barbie: Exploitation of Third World Labor


Foek, Anton, The Humanist


My daughter Zsa Zsa, seven years old, stands in front of the toy store and can't make up her mind which Barbie doll she wants. Barbie is her idol and role model. I argue her to pick out another present of her birthday but, if I insist, I'll spoil her day altogether. So Barbie it is: four or five to keep the peace and save her birthday.

There is no way for me to explain to her that there is something fundamentally wrong with Barbie. For as financially successful as the doll has been, the story of Barbie is appalling.

Barbie dolls are manufactured in factories in China, Thailand, and Indonesia, where orking conditions are radically different from what Americans are used to. Factory workers in these Far Eastern countries are underpaid, overworked, and getting sick - even dying.

Just arrived in Bangkok, I see banners that say, "We are not salve labour!" (They were intended to say "slave labour," but the message gets through anyway.) The banners are carried by women and children who work in the Dynamics factory just outside of Bangkok. Only a few men have shown up to support them. I ask these protestors what they want and they answer: to be treated hke human beings. They regard themselves as modern-day slaves of a system that exploits them.

One woman, Karim, tells me that more than half of these women are sick. They make Mattel's Barbie dous in an environment that would probably have been banned as dangerous anywhere in the First World. Many of the workers have respiratory infections, their lungs fifled with dust from fabrics in the factory. And not only dust: others work with lead and other chemicals and suffer from chronic lead poisoning. They can wear masks, of course, but first they have to buy them. And as they make a mere four to five dollars a day - from which they must also buy their uniforms and scissors - most simply can't afford the protection.

Thanks to John Osolnick, an American working in Bangkok, I obtained access to the Dynamics factory (naturall, no tape or video recorders were allowed inside). I saw hundreds of women and children stuffing, cutting, dressing, and assembling Barbie dolls - as weu as the Lion Kings my daughter worships and other Disney properties that dazzle me.

Many of these factory workers suffer from pains in their hands, necks, and shoulders. Others experience nausea and dizziness and suffer from hair and memory loss. They sleep badly. The most common complaints, however, are a shortage of breath and infections in and around the throat. More than 75 percent of the people working here have breathing problems. The air in the factory is so dusty that even the managers don't come in for fear of being contaminated. And of the hundreds of workers I saw, all of them, without exception, have black walls under their eyes.

One woman told me, "It sometimes gets so hot and moist in here that some of us faint." A small number of workers have tried to organize, she said, but there is an overall fear that they will be fired and that "no one will take care of us if we do not work." There is also the fear of physical harm. "Women in Thailand are vulnerable," another worker tells me. "We have to think of our parents in Chiang Mai and our small brothers and sisters who go to school. Who is going to pay for them if we don't?" It is a catch-22 situation: if they don't work, their relatives get nothing, if they do work, they get sick from all the chemicals and dust.

"I am an old woman even before my twentieth birthday," a third woman said to me. "Maybe I should move to Taiwan or Korea." But even if she wanted to, she wouldn't be allowed to emigrate, because she is too young. This job is a nightmare for her and the 4,500 other people who work at the Dynamics factory, and it is almost standard that Asian women and children are exploited this way. It doesn't really matter what industry you work in, as a woman or child you are always on the bottom of the heap - long hours, low wages, and poor health care.

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