China's Toy Industry Tinderbox

By Williamson, Hugh | Multinational Monitor, September 1994 | Go to article overview

China's Toy Industry Tinderbox


Williamson, Hugh, Multinational Monitor


If the Workers' Daily says so, it must be true. China's official workers' paper commented recently that "many people say [the foreign-invested economy] is China's burgeoning new heaven. But sometimes, heaven is only a step away from hell."

The statement rings especially true for 84 former colleagues of Tao Chun Lan, a 20-year-old woman from Zhongyuan, a poor village in Sichuan province in central China. Last year, Tao and many village friends migrated to Shenzhen, the "Special Economic Zone," which borders Hong Kong and exemplifies China's rush to open its doors to foreign business.

Tao and her friends found work in the Zhili Handicrafts factory, making stuffed toys. They earned poverty wages, about $46 a month. On the night of November 19, 1993, an electrical fault sparked a fire that ripped through Zhili's dual factory-dormitory building. The workers were locked inside -- only one of four exits was open. In all, 84 workers were suffocated, burnt or trampled to death. Most of the victims were women, and many were Tao's friends from Zhongyuan village.

Tao was lucky. She survived, although she crushed both ankles jumping to safety from a second-floor window. Hospitalized for four months, she received no compensation from the company or the local government. "They don't care if I'm crippled for life," she told the local press.

International toy makers and distributors refuse to acknowledge any responsibility for preventing such industrial disasters. When presented with a suggestion to adopt a toy industry code to prevent future fires like the one at Zhili, Dennis Ting, head of the Hong Kong Toy Council, which represents major investors in China, called the idea "ridiculous," and fumed, "someone is out of their minds."

Ting and others are eager to maintain business as usual. The $40 billion per year international toy industry is increasingly centered on China. The country houses the world's biggest toy manufacturing industry, which continues to expand. The Southeast China province of Guangdong, where Shenzhen and many other special economic zones are located, is the industry's heartland, where at least one-third of the world's toys are made. Neighboring Hong Kong is China's toy export gateway, shipping toys worth $8 billion in 1993, making it the world's leading toy exporter.

Despite the economic promise of this scenario, toy industry boosters are finding it increasingly difficult to use such statistics to hide the plight of Tao and her fellow Chinese workers. A realistic picture of the Chinese toy industry is emerging -- highlighted through profiles of several Asian multinational companies' Chinese operations -- revealing that many of the toys that delight children around the world are the product of rock-bottom wages, horrendous working conditions, appalling health and safety risks and a de facto ban on free labor organizing. In opposition to this exploitation, toy workers' demands and protest actions are increasing, supported by international campaigns.

The toy industry also opens a window into broader aspects of today's China. What is happening in the toy industry may be repeated in other sectors in the coming years. In the face of its ailing state enterprises, many reformers in China see the foreign-controlled joint ventures that dominate the toy industry as the fastest route to economic development. Yet worker hardship and industrial disasters raise questions about the sustainability of this approach.

Further, most of the foreign companies involved are Asian-based, commonly from Hong Kong and Taiwan. The way these corporations operate in China demonstrates how the world's "new" multinationals may approach labor-management relations in the twenty-first century.

The labor behind the labels

The toy industry's famous brands -- Fisher-Price, Hasbro, Tyco and Mattel from the United States and Europe, Bandai and Tomy from Japan -- rarely appear on the name-plates of Chinese factories. …

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