Toying with Lives

The Scandalous Plight of China's Toy Workers

Weeks before the deadly fire, two workers addressed letters to the factory's "Honorable General Manager" asking for permission to quit. The two, both young women, gave the same reason: their families in rural China wanted them to return home. One of them explained further: "I no longer have the heart to continue working."

An investigator from a labor office in Beijing later found the two letters among the ruins of the fire that on November 19, 1993, destroyed the Zhili Toy Factory in southern China. In a long report, titled "Toyland Inferno: A Journey Through the Ruins," the investigator, Yi Fu, described how flames, smoke, and panic killed 87 workers, unable to escape through the three-story factory's single unlocked exit or its barred windows. From incomplete records, he verified that one of the two women who wanted to resign had lost her life in the tragedy. (The full report is published in "China's Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy," by Anita Chan, 2001, M.E. Sharpe.)

Most of the 400 workers at the Zhili factory were young women, age 16 to 25. So were the fire victims, the 87 dead and 47 others with permanent burns and other serious injuries. Because they came from rural provinces, they were officially categorized as "migrants," people with fewer privileges than the urban residents and only a temporary, job-connected privilege to live away from their home areas.

In the prosperous special economic zone of Shenzhen, where the Hong Kong-owned Zhili factory was located, 1,800,000 migrants were employed in the foreign-owned factories that produced toys, shoes, garments, and other goods for export, Yi Fu reported at the time. "Not only do they make up 70 percent of Shenzhen's population," he wrote, "they are also the principal creators of the region's prosperity." Their typical reward, he found, was meager: $1.10 for a 12-hour day, no days off, and long delays in wage payments, plus horrible working conditions. Yi Fu detailed how Shenzhen factories, including Zhili, violated health and safety regulations, and even ignored a city inspection team's warnings of multiple fire hazards issued not long before November 19, 1993.

"The Zhili fire was not fated," Yi Fu wrote. "It was a man-made tragedy." He blamed various parties in China for, among other things, being overly protective of foreign investment, to the exclusion of worker rights. Yet he concluded on a hopeful note: "The tragic events at Zhili should be a catalyst that motivates the government, the employers, and the unions to fulfill their responsibilities to work together to protect the rights of workers."

As we reflect on the recent toy-buying season, it's time to ask: Has this hope been fulfilled?

*  *  *

In China, the toy industry is booming, thanks largely to exports to the United States, the world's largest market for toys. Americans are spending more than $23 billion a year on products traditionally classified as toys—dolls, doll houses, stuffed animals, little vehicles (powered and non-powered, plastic and metal), crayons, building sets, craft kits, children's furniture, plastic guns, board games, and countless other items—plus $6.5 billion more on video games. Those statistics are from the Toy Industry Association, the New York City-based trade group representing companies responsible for 85 percent of U.S. toy sales. Formerly called Toy Manufacturers of America, it changed its name only last year, belatedly recognizing that for decades toys labeled "made-in-the-USA" have been mighty few. Most are imported. And more than half of all toys sold here come from the People's Republic of China.

The 1993 Zhili tragedy called worldwide attention to the workers in China who make their country the world's largest manufacturer and exporter of toys. Those men and women—now numbering more than three million, at least 80 percent of them young women—have continued to come under close scrutiny, chiefly by the world media and by a network of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), both in Hong Kong and in Western countries.

Among the most recent NGO and media reports on how China's toy workers are faring, two stand out. One is a Washington Post article, published May 13, 2002, titled "Worked Till They Drop" and subtitled "Few Protections for China's New Laborers." The other is "Toys of Misery,"W1 (see Webnotes below) a two-part report issued by the New York-based National Labor Committee in early 2002. Both rely heavily on off-job interviews with toy workers themselves, rather than on conducted tours of factories and the word of management. Both document the same point: The plight of the working women who make most of the world's toys is scandalous.

The Washington Post article centered on a 19-year-old named Li Chunmei, who quit her rural school in the third grade, first to help her family eke out a living on the land, and then to work, like her older sister, in the factories of the Shenzhen special economic zone 700 miles away. Li wound up as a "runner"—she carried the eyes, ears, and other parts of brand-name stuffed animals from one stitching area to another, for 12 cents an hour.

"The bosses were always yelling at her to go faster," one co-worker told the Washington Post reporter Philip P. Pan. One night during the pre-Christmas rush season last year, after nearly 16 hours on her feet, Li fell into her bunk exhausted and coughing up blood. She died before she could be taken to a hospital. Officially, the cause of her death was simply called a non-work-related "illness." But in towns where factories operate day and night to produce for export, her fate is common enough to have its own name: guolaosi, short for death due to overwork. Li had been working day after day for two months straight without even a Sunday off.

In recounting Li Chunmei's life and death, Pan provided details on labor conditions that he called "the norm" for tens of millions of workers in China's light-assembly industries making toys and other products for the world. Li's brief career in Shenzhen illustrated those conditions:

Management's hold on employees. Although Li spoke to colleagues about quitting and returning home, she feared losing the two months of back wages that the company, in accordance with a widespread practice, had withheld. Several other toy workers told Pan they were "trapped" in similar circumstances.

Arbitrary fines. Managers dock a worker's pay for violating company rules, such as for spending more than five minutes in the toilet or for wasting food. Once, after being refused a day off, Li did not complete a night shift in order to rest—she lost three days' pay.

The toy business' contortions. In tracking Li's brief job history, Pan learned that at the time of her death she was working for a subcontractor who worked for a contractor who worked for a Korean-owned toy manufacturer, Kaiming Industrial Ltd. A Kaiming manager explained this weird production chain as follows: Although Kaiming's main factory has relatively good labor standards for the brand-name products it makes, it farms out the least profitable and most difficult orders to a contractor with lower standards, who, after taking a commission, distributes some of the workload to a subcontractor. So when Pan asked for information about Li, Kaiming and its contractor both said she wasn't their responsibility since she wasn't working for them. The subcontractor, a woman, was nowhere to be found.

The Washington Post article did not identify the brand names of the play animals that Li and her co-workers made. But Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee, operates on the theory that sunshine is the best cure for sweatshops. Like the committee's previous reports on labor abuses in Bangladesh, El Salvador, Haiti, and elsewhere, "Toys of Misery" identifies dozens of products, manufacturers, retailers, and licensees by name. In its very first sentence, the report challenges you to consider the plight of China's toy workers "when you go into a Wal-Mart or a Toys ‘R' Us store to purchase Harry Potter or Disney's Monsters Inc., or Mattel's Barbie, Sesame Street, Hasbro's Star Wars or Pokémon....." Kernaghan follows this with a long litany of miseries endured by those workers.

The 75-page report, covering 19 factories that export toys to the U.S. and Europe, is depressing. It describes the usual abuses that plague workers in China's sweatshops: illegally low wages, illegally long hours, illegal wage deductions, and the not-illegal repression of the right to organize free unions. The report's commentary on a single factory—Shuihe, which employs from 3,000 to 4,500 young workers generally in their teens and early twenties—has 11 pages listing how it violates China's local and national legislation. Among the abuses, management imposes "a myriad of rigid, draconian regulations backed up by stiff fines and the threat of firing." Workers lose at least one day's wage for talking during business hours, one week's pay for stepping on the factory lawn, one day's pay for the first time they punch in late to work and more the second time. Besides, like other toy workers across China, many Shuihe workers handle toxic chemical paints, glues, and solvents with their bare hands.

It isn't as though these types of exposés are new. Not at all. And it's not as though various worker and human rights advocates outside mainland China have not campaigned to ameliorate those horrendous conditions. They have. Indeed, their efforts have raised world consciousness about the plight of Chinese workers—probably preventing even greater abuses. But, on the factory floor, the situation for most workers has not improved. On the positive side, however, the initiatives that have been undertaken reveal the channels through which the lives of ordinary people in China, including its voiceless toy workers, can potentially be improved. Let's examine several of these channels.

Corporate Codes of Conduct

In Hong Kong, a network of non-governmental organizations has long been active in raising public consciousness about the problems of working men and women both in Hong Kong itself and in the neighboring provinces of the People's Republic. One such group, the Christian Industrial Committee (CIC),W2 founded in 1967, pioneered in exposing the health and safety perils in the toy and other factories owned by Hong Kong and other foreign investors. In a 1987 report on the rising rate of industrial accidents, the Committee wrote: "None of us should stand by with folded hands," and added, "We cannot rely on the government alone for improving industrial safety."

That message took on greater urgency after the Zhili disaster in 1993, followed by the deaths of 11 workers in June 1994, when their illegally constructed dormitory at a Hong Kong-funded toy factory in Shenzhen collapsed. The CIC and a dozen other Hong Kong NGOs sprang into action as a coalition to issue a set of standards, called a Charter on the Safe Production of Toys, and to agitate for those standards to protect the lives and limbs of toy workers.

In 1995, the Coalition issued a new report, based on interviews with workers in nine factories, on how widely toy companies violated the Charter. It asked the Hong Kong Toy Industry Council, which represented many major investors in China, to embrace the Charter, and got a flat refusal. "Somebody is out of their minds," an industry spokesman said. The Coalition then launched an international campaign, with activists in 10 countries. They warned of a boycott against those who failed to adopt the Charter and improve their contractors' labor abuses.

Reacting to the campaign, the International Council of Toy Industries, an association of 20 national toy associations, adopted a code of labor practices in 1995 and has revised it at least twice since then. In 1997, Mattel, the world's largest toy corporation, adopted its own corporate code covering 18 Mattel-owned plants and some 300 contractor-operated factories in China and elsewhere. The announcement came a month before Christmas and a year after a Dateline NBC TV report that girls as young as 13 were making clothes for Mattel's Barbie doll in Indonesia. Corporate codes on labor practices began to proliferate in the toy industry and beyond. According to a survey of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, they now number at least 240.

Significantly, of all the core worker rights promulgated by the UN's International Labor Organization, the one that is the most commonly violated is the right to organize. Most corporate codes either ignore it or fail to implement it, except perhaps in the corporation's home country. Many conveniently qualify that right by making it subject to "local law." The code of business practices of the International Council of Toy Industries, for example, stipulates that "all workers are entitled to freely exercise their rights of employee representation as provided by local law."W3 That's quite a loophole, given the fact that so much global production these days comes from China, where the government outlaws the right to unionize and the police are brutal in suppressing it.

The Toy Industry Association has taken additional steps, which may have only PR as their inspiration. The association president, Tom Conley, in July 2002, announced two initiatives by his association: developing "a special working relationship with the Chinese government's workplace safety agencies" and setting up an independent unit in Hong Kong to audit compliance with the industry's code of conduct and to offer training in compliance with the code.W4

Are these corporate responsibility codes only public relations gimmicks, or are they potentially useful instruments for advancing worker rights? Both, concluded four Hong Kong NGOs in 1999, five years after proposing a code of conduct for the toy industry. In Change, the newsletter of the Christian Industrial Committee, they analyzed what they called "the dual nature of the codes":

• On the one hand, the codes involve a "great deal of moral posturing and superficial public relations stunts," without improving working conditions on the production line.

• At the same time, the codes provide the "leverage through which we can pressure companies to improve their working situation and hopefully create conditions that facilitate the right to organize and the right to collective bargaining" (italics in the original).

So far, this leverage has fallen far short of its potential. Above all, it has not given workers the leverage they need to organize unions of their own (see special section, "Growing Worker Activism.").

Consumer Pressure

Once considered a useful tool, consumer boycotts are now recognized as largely unrealistic. Made-in-China goods swamp stores in the United States. Alternative choices, say of a doll made in South Korea, are exceedingly rare. And so are the parents and grandparents who will deny little Jane or Johnny a popular game or doll just because it comes from in China.

Consumers will not carry the full burden of wiping out sweatshops, and they cannot. Yet they are not powerless. They can and do exert pressure on the firms whose products they buy—for instance, by asking companies for copies of their codes of conduct, by complaining to store managers about a lack of choice among the countries where goods are made, by writing letters of concern to the White House, Congress, and the media, and by joining demonstrations against violations of the human rights of workers in China. The consumer strategy advocated by Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee is to concentrate pressure on giant retailers like Wal-Mart and Toys "R" Us, and big manufacturers like Mattel and Hasbro, asking them to insist that overseas toy manufacturers obey the law and allow trade unions.

International Trade Reforms

International and U.S.-China trade agreements have fueled two engines of China's economic growth—globalized trade and investment. A major and little known component of those agreements is their network of enforceable protections for the property rights of individuals and corporations engaged in cross-border trade and investment. A major omission in those agreements is any kind of similar protection for the rights of the many millions of its workers employed in making toys and other products.

The AFL-CIO and many other organizations in the U.S. and abroad have long pressed for a worker rights dimension to balance the rules in trade and investment agreements such as those administered by the Geneva-based World Trade Organization. But the WTO has steadfastly refused even to discuss proposals to establish a study group that would discuss the idea.

The reason, according to widespread misinformation, is that developing countries are very strongly opposed. Actually, the strongest opposition comes from the governments of some developing countries. In many of these countries, the unions agree that the WTO's protections are unbalanced and should be broadened to cover the interests of the vulnerable working women and men in the global economy. That idea has such merit that the struggle to adopt it is sure to continue. A built-in obstacle, however, is that the WTO is run by government ministers of trade or finance—officials who, at the international level, are unlikely to deviate from their role at home, which definitely is not to serve as an advocate of worker rights.

The AFL-CIO has used every possible opening domestically to demand that the President and the Congress make U.S. and global trade with China conditional on progress in the human rights of China's people, including its working men and women. All to no avail, either in Democratic or Republican administrations. China's economy keeps growing, its workers keep paying the price, and U.S. trade with China continues, unmoved by the misery it's subsidizing.

What will China's greater integration into the global economy through accession to the WTO mean for China's workers? Australian National University's Anita Chan, author of "China's Workers Under Assault" and other writings based on extensive field research in China, expects that the free trade rules of the expanded WTO will intensify competition among developing countries to lower wages and working conditions. "In the migrant worker areas in south China, along the Coast," she says, "I don't see the conditions getting better, only worse."

The above three strategies—codes of conduct, consumer action, and demands for trade reform—pursued with complementary initiatives, help to keep the pressure on, and help to prevent greater abuses. But thus far they have failed to produce substantial forward movement. Significant progress depends on more pressure for change from within China itself. Pressure from outside is necessary, but it does not suffice, particularly without the presence in China of organizations of workers, by workers, and for workers. What could change this is the growing unrest among Chinese workers—and early signs that the unrest could slowly germinate an organized worker presence in China.

What You Can Do

How can you help? Right now, there's no organized international consumer campaign aimed at improving working conditions and allowing unions in China, but consider these ideas:

1. Photocopy this article and take it with you the next time you visit Wal-Mart, Toys "R" Us, or any other toy retailer. Give it to the manager and tell him orally, and also in a letter—

• that you are concerned about the plight of the millions of women and men who make our toys under sweatshop conditions; and

• that Wal-Mart, Toys "R" Us, and other retailers should live up to the promises that their national business group, the Toy Industry Association, made in the code of fair labor practices—and allow Chinese workers to form independent unions.

2. Write a letter covering the same points to Tom Conley, president of the Toy Industry Association, 1115 Broadway, Suite 400, New York, NY 10010. You might remind him of his July statement on "Setting the Standard for Social Responsibility," which you can read at

3. Check anti-sweatshop Web sites, such as that of the National Labor Committee (at in the United States and the Christian Industrial Committee ( in Hong Kong, for reports on pressing problems and how you can help.

4. Become better informed on how U.S. integration into the global economy brings us vast benefits as consumers but also opens up opportunities for us to make sure that working men and women gain rights now denied. See especially the Web site of the AFL-CIO at

Voices of Young Toy Workers

"I've been working since I was 15 years old. People said you could earn more in Guangdong, but it's worse here. I've worked in the spraying department for three years. I've always suspected the paints are poisonous. I've been sick ever since I started working in spraying. And they lie about the wages. We never know how they're calculated. There's no pay stub and no way to check. We're given a sheet of paper with a lot of numbers on it to look at for a few seconds and then have to sign it. We get what they give us."

"Every day we work in temperatures that can go over 100 degrees. The molding machines are noisy and hot. The air is filled with a strong chemical smell. I have to repeat the same motions, over and over: open the machine, put in the plastic, press the machine, take out the plastic. A lot of us can't stand the heat, the smell, and the noise—and some of us faint."

"The chemical smell is strong at the workplace and you can see paint dust everywhere. I wanted to throw up every day when I first came. I never stopped having stomachaches and dizziness in the first month."

"We work long overtime hours like dogs. It's after midnight when we get back to the dormitory. And it makes you even more tired when you see the long line at the bathroom. By the time I go to bed, it's already 2 A.M. and at 8 A.M. the next day, I am already at my workplace. It's the same every day. It's very exhausting."

"Only management staff gets [the legally required] maternity leave. Production workers like myself work as usual even if we are pregnant. When you are about to give birth, you have to quit. Management makes sure of that."

"I've been here for more than a year. The highest [monthly] salary I got was rmb 800 ($96.65). I had to work till 12 midnight or later every day for that. The lowest I got was rmb 200 ($24.16). That was delivered after the Chinese New Year. We had a bad time this Chinese New Year (end of January). [One factory] delivered lunch coupons to their workers—we in this factory got nothing. We had no money for the New Year. We did not even have money to eat. I knew of workers picking up remains in the canteen. We are still angry about it. How can you treat workers like this?"

The excerpts above are drawn from "Toys of Misery" (see Webnote 1)


The Struggle for Democracy in China: Resources for Teachers

This resource guide from the AFT's International Affairs department offers everything teachers need to develop a unit on the ongoing struggle for democracy in China.

Issues addressed include human and worker rights, child labor, education, the environment, corruption, and ethnic minorities.

To order, send $5 check or money order, payable to AFT, to: The China Project, International Affairs Department, American Federation of Teachers, 555 New Jersey Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. For more information, e-mail


Robert A. Senser is an editor and freelance writer specializing in worker rights issues. He spent 21 years in the Foreign Service as a labor attaché and 10 years with the Asian-American Free Labor Institute, which at the time was the AFL-CIO's branch for supporting the rights of Asian workers. He now runs Human Rights for Workers (, a Web site that focuses on the need to establish workers' rights in every country through governmental or non-governmental channels. The site contains a monthly bulletin, links to many of Senser's articles, and links to other Web sites on labor and trade issues.


Resources from "Toying with Lives"

W1 "Toys of Misery" can be found online at (back to article)

W2 For more information in the Christian Industrial Committee, visit (back to article)

W3 For the text of the code of business practices of the International Council of Toy Industries, see (back to article)

W4 "Setting the Standard for Corporate Responsibility," statement issued July 2002, is available at (back to article)

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