An Investigation into Four Toy Sweatshops

The world of toys is a heaven for children, but may be a world of misery for toy factory workers. Workers have to be apart from their loved ones: children, parents and their better half. They put in 11 hours every day, and work 6 or 7 days a week, but earn only the minimum wage standard as stipulated by law in harmful and toxic working environments. 10 workers are squeezed into a small dormitory room, and in winter, they frequently don’t have hot showers. Workers lack complaint channels, and the representatives of the union are assigned by factory management. This situation has lasted for many decades. Tragically, not much has changed so far. 

Toy brands for which the investigated factories were producing for: Disney, Mattel, Fisher-Price, and McDonald



In 2016, China Labor Watch underwent an undercover in-depth investigation in April and September at four toy factories that produce for Mattel, Hasbro, Disney, McDonalds and Wal-Mart amongst others. Toys produced include Thomas the Tank Engine, Hot Wheels, Cars, Barbie, DJ Suki Trolls, Super Hero, Super Girl, Hello Kitty, Jibanyan, Disney Princess and Imaginext. We discovered a string of violations. Here are six of the most common violations:

1. Long working hours without rest breaks, which is in serious violation of Chinese labor law

According to Chinese Labor Law, laborers shall work no more than 8 hours a day. In general, work hours can be prolonged, under certain circumstances and under the condition that the physical health of laborers is guaranteed. Overtime hours, however, cannot exceed 36 hours a month. Unfortunately, we found that the average working hours in these four factories was 11 hours a day, with more than 50 overtime hours a month, and at half of the factories, overtime hours had reached 100 hours, with the highest at above 130 hours. Moreover, the extremely high production requirements left workers with barely any time to rest. During the 11 hours that workers put in within a day, all they had was a 40-60 minutes’ lunch break. This is an obvious violation of the right of workers’ to having adequate rest.

2. Ignoring the Pre-Work Safety Training and lacking safety protection measures

According to Chinese Labor Law, the employers shall grant labor protection articles to workers involved in noxious and harmful jobs, and establish and perfect its system for labor safety and sanitation, strictly abiding by State rules and standards on labor safety and sanitation.[i] However, we found that none of the four factories had ever taken the pre-work safety training seriously; none of them had given instructions on the toxic materials which workers came into contact with; and none of them took the initiative to grant labor protection articles and where there were labor protection articles, this was rarely used. For example, “Banana Oil”, is a toxic liquid which is widely used in toy factories. Because of its defatting effect, workers’ skins may become chapped under direct exposure without protection. It may also cause eyes and mucosa membrane irritation. If inhaled in high concentrations, banana oil can also impair the lungs and central nervous system. But none of the factories had ever informed the workers about the dangers of banana oil,[ii] nor did they provide labor protection articles to workers, such as gloves, glasses, masks, etc. Workers had direct contact with banana oil, which was extremely harmful to workers’ physical health. [iii]

3. Refusing to pay social insurance and the housing fund for workers, or failing to pay in accordance with the relevant provisions and laws

Chinese relevant laws stipulate that foreign-invested enterprises shall pay  Social Insurance [iv]and Housing Fund[v] for workers, and the payment base and rate are also specified by local regulations. But we found that none of the factories followed the provisions strictly: one factory did not pay the social insurance nor the housing fund for the workers at all; another factory only paid a portion to some workers; some factory even forced the workers to sign commitment letters showing that they were willing to give up their right to receive social insurance and the housing fund; and for the factory which did pay social insurance, the base and rate of their payment did not meet the legal requirements. [vi]Without doubt, this behavior severely infringed the legitimate rights and interests of toy factory workers. 

4. Lack of a union which operates effectively, lack of an independent and effective complaints channel

Through our investigation, the four factories either lack a union altogether, or the union exists but they do not actually operate. At one factory, the union appears to have hung a “Union committee” sign at their office, however, throughout the year, the office is closed and there is no contact information. The majority of workers do not know who the workers’ representatives are, nor their contact information. Factories also have not set up an independent and effective complaints channel. Even though some factories have an opinion box, and a complaints hotline, the opinion box is covered in dust, and results are yet to be seen from the complaints hotline.

5. Low wages and poor food and accommodation

According to the Guangdong Human Resources and Social Security Department, in 2016, the minimum wage standard for Dongguan and Foshan is $223 USD/month. The minimum wage standard for Shenzhen is $300 USD. At the four factories we investigated, workers at three of the factories which were located in Foshan or Dongguan, had a base wage of around $231 USD/month. Workers at the fourth factory, located in Shenzhen, had a base wage of $300 USD. As such, wages are low for workers in the toy industry, and they only earn around 5% more than the local minimum wage standard. This forces workers to have no choice, but to work overtime to earn enough money. Moreover, their meals lack nutrition, and some of the dormitories the workers live in are in poor condition, being old and dirty, and electrical wiring covers the floors.

6. During off season, the factory limits overtime work for workers, with the purpose of punishing and dismissing workers.

Workers’ base wages are very low, and they do not receive allowances for working overtime. Workers are unable to sustain a basic standard of living, as such, many workers usually have to take advantage of overtime work to earn money.  During off season, the factory has little to no overtime work, and is a form of “punishment” for workers. This, amongst other methods, is used to force workers to voluntarily resign

Regarding labor rights violations in toy factories, nothing is new. We can’t tolerate that children’s dreams are based on worker’s nightmares, and we must fight against the unfair oppression of workers who manufacture toys. Any toy that is manufactured in China is a process where workers’ rights have been infringed upon. Workers in toy factories face heavy workloads every day, but only earn an extremely low wage. They have children as well. But after years of separation, when the workers finally return home with various illnesses or occupational injuries, who will protect the dream of their children? The striking contrast between the life of these workers, and the millionaires who earn profits from toys is shocking. Those who earn high profits from toys have done so by oppressing the interests of workers, and as such, their negligence should be subject to public and moral condemnation.

                                                  Food and Accommodation

Working Environment 

Work at Toy Factories: Employees are often exposed to chemicals without proper protection

Toy Workers’ Life after Work or During Breaks: Have a rest is more important than anything else
Note:  Hasbro has replied to our report, stating that none of the four factories produced for them. We found a document at Combine Will, which stated that Hasbro authorized McDonald to use its brand of “NERF” in 2015, but Hasbro claimed that, “ it is likely from very old production—as we have not manufactured in this Combine Will factory for over a year.”
However, labor rights violations has been there. Combine Will has never paid for workers’ social insurance, and workers are seeking to defend for their rights. As long as Hasbro has cooperated with Combine Will, it should be responsible for the labor rights violations during its production there. 

[i]<Labour Law of the People’s Republic of China> Article 52 The employer shall establish and perfect its system for labour safety and sanitation, strictly abide by State rules and standards on labour safety and sanitation, educate labourers in labour safety and sanitation, prevent accidents in the process of labour, and reduce occupational hazards. Article 54 The employer shall provide labourers with labour safety and sanitation conditions meeting State stipulations and necessary articles of labour protection, and carry out regular health examination for labourers engaged in work with occupational hazards.

[ii] Although some factory provided the pre-assignment security training, but the training time is very short and too general;

[iii] Some factory required workers to sign letters showing that they were fully aware of the dangers of working in the jobs even before orientation trainings were held; some factories handed out protective equipment, but almost none of the workers used it and the factory did not remind or require workers to use the protective equipment.

[iv] <“Interim Regulations on the Collection of Social Insurance Premiums”>Article 3 stipulates that foreign-invested enterprises shall pay the basic annuities insurance premium, basic medical insurance and the unemployment insurance. <Provisions of Maternity Insurance of Workers and Staff Members of Guangdong Province > Article 2, Article 10, and < Provisions on Social Work Injury Insurance for Employees of Enterprises in Guangdong Province > Article 2, Article 4, Article 12, stipulate that enterprises in Guangdong should pay the maternity insurance and the work-related injury insurance for their employees, and employees do not need to pay for this;

[v] < Regulations on the Administration of Housing Provident Funds > Article 2, Article 3 and Article 16;

[vi] According to the relevant regulations of Guangdong, the minimum wage for basic pension insurance is $430 USD.

Mattel claimed that Combine Will did not manufacture for it, but during investigation our investigator found Mattel products were made in a workshop (please refer to the picture below). We shared this picture with Mattel. Since then, Mattel has not replied yet.
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