Thousands of toys are sold each day, bringing joy, happiness and smiles to the faces of children. At the same time, workers in toy factories in Guangdong Province, China struggle to cope with the high-pressure environment and the long working day. One of the workers is so exhausted because of the high production targets every day, that her body ached all over, and she could not help but cry in the dormitories. Another female worker was sexually harassed, and the male worker who sexually harassed her even threatened to hit her. Although this happened inside a toy factory, nobody thought there was anything wrong. More importantly, nobody felt the need to stop these abuses from happening.
Since 2001, China Labor Watch has been conducting research on China’s toy factories. We believe that having compassion is a virtue that every child should be taught. When parents choose toys for their children, they have the right to know about the unfair treatment and exploitation that workers experience, especially female migrant workers.
This year, China Labor Watch investigated two toy factories in China’s Dongguan city. One of the factories is a Mattel-owned factory, and another is a supplier factory of Mattel, Chicco, Fisher-price and Tomy.
Products manufactured at Changan Mattel and Dongguan Dongyao
Barbie dolls manufactured at Changan Mattel
Left: Chicco; Right: Fisher-price
Packaged Tomy toys
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the toy supply chain. However, global toy sales have increased, as children have stayed home from school across the world and parents have purchased toys to keep their children entertained . For Mattel alone, their Quarter 3 2020 financial results revealed that the company’s net sales increased by 10% compared to last year, reaching $1.6 billion US dollars. For the same quarter, their net income was $316 million US dollars .
The factors that contribute to the growth of toy companies is not only the purchasing power of consumers, but also the workers who work overtime and earn meagre wages. In the assembly workshop of Changan Mattel, the daily production target for each production line is around 1300 to 1400 products. Workers only have 30 minutes for a meal, and work 10 hours a day from Monday to Saturday. That is, workers have to produce over 100 products every hour, so they can complete the production target. Workers generally put in around 80 overtime hours a month. They sometimes had delays of 30 minutes in getting off work, as they were required to stay back and complete the production target and workers were not paid for this. Workers only earn an hourly wage of less than $2USD. Workers at Dongguan Dongyao also put in 10 or 11 hours a day, and work overtime on Saturday during peak season. September had the most overtime hours, and workers put in 92 to 112 overtime hours that month. Both factories are in clear violation of overtime laws in China which mandate that overtime hours must not exceed 36 hours a month.
For 20 years, there have been some improvements in China’s toy factories . But these improvements lag behind, when compared to the 20 years of development in various industries in China. Workers’ socioeconomic status has remained the same over the years. They receive the least amount of respect and earn extremely low wages when compared with the rest of society.
Several serious rights violations at both factories are highlighted below:
Workplace Psychological Violence
According to related documents from the ILO, psychological violence can be defined as the “intentional use of power, including threat of physical force, Physical violence, against another person or group that can result in harm to physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development. It includes verbal abuse, bullying/mobbing, harassment, and threats”.
We have found psychological violence in the workplace of both factories. For example, the team leader and assistant team leader on the workshop assembly line at Changan Mattel would scold workers who are working slowly, and even called a worker a “stupid cunt”. After a worker was injured, the workshop team leader would scold the injured worker for not being careful enough, warning them not to report this to the factory. The team leader of Dongguan Dongyao ignored workers’ requests for masks, and was passive aggressive, ignoring workers who asked not to work overtime. This gave workers a lot of psychological pressure, and makes it even harder to ask for protective equipment or not to work overtime.
Sexual harassment has gained increased awareness in recent years, yet little research has been done in factories in China. Last year, we found cases of sexual harassment at Foshan Mattel. This year, at the Changan Mattel factory, there were issues with sexual harassment, which shows that Mattel has largely failed to put in place measures to protect victims and also to address the issue. For example, one of the male workers would regularly sexually harass female workers in the workshop. The worker would call one of the female workers “dear”, and explains he does this so that she is excited. He also would touch the hands and hair of another female worker. The assistant team leader sees this behaviour and not only fails to stop it, but even joined in with sexual comments, such as asking the male worker if he masturbated the night before. The Wechat group originally formed to coordinate workers had sexual comments almost every day and a worker even posted the contact information of sex workers in the group.
Occupational health and safety
The two factories provided paid pre-job safety training to meet the requirements in the Labor Law, yet both factories fell short of the 24 hours of training as legally mandated.
Changan Mattel requires every worker to receive at least 24 hours of safety training in the first month of employment. However, the investigator found that workers usually have training on the first day of employment for four hours and there is no other training afterwards. At the Dongyao factory, workers merely watch a video for two hours and most of the workers fall asleep watching it. It is precisely because of the lack of training, that it is difficult for workers to avoid injuries when operating machines.
At Changan Mattel, no one showed the investigator how to use the laminator, and she burnt her hands multiple times. Workers in the spray painting workshop were exposed to chemicals every day, and some workers had paint in their nostrils after work. They were not provided with any special protective mask other than a surgical mask which cannot properly filter harmful aerosol.
At Dongguan Dongyao, a worker using thinner was not provided with gloves, and her hands had ulcers. Another worker who was also using thinner had skin redness, swelling and itching. Though she was scolded by the director after telling him and she could only go to a small clinic nearby to get an injection to relieve the symptoms. At the soldering station that produces black smoke, a mask with activated carbon is required, yet some workers wore masks and others did not. The masks they wore were merely ordinary blue masks. The factory did not ensure workers were wearing masks that they were provided with as the investigator saw some workers using hexane but did not wear masks.
Individually, each worker can feel powerless in the face of factory management. Forming a union or electing worker representatives has become most likely the only legal way for workers to communicate with the factory about grievances. Although there was a union or worker representatives at the two factories we investigated, these were only there as formality and were ineffective in representing the rights of workers, who mostly did not even know they existed.
In particular, the Changan Mattel factory had a range of departments such as “Home of Mattel”, “Worker Hotline”, Communist League Branch, All-China Women’s Federation. Yet these departments did little to assist workers. When a female worker had a miscalculation of her wages, none of the departments in the factory were willing to resolve the issue. It was only when she threatened to call the local Human Resources an Social Security Bureau to report the illegal deduction of wages by the factory, that the factory resolved the issue.
Dongyao factory does not have a union, and requires workers during the job interview to sign a form that says they are unwilling to join the union. According to Article 7 of China’s Labor Law, workers have the right to participate or organize a union. Dongyao factory has a list of worker representatives, and each department elects representatives. But according to a worker representative, elections only occur when it is convenient for the factory to hold these meetings. Worker representatives are also only responsible for disseminating information from the factory (for example, changes in work schedules). They do not actually communicate the needs and issues that workers face, to the factory.
COVID-19 Prevention Measures
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, workplaces across the world have had to adapt and put in place measures to prevent the spread of the virus. At factories, most workers usually rely heavily on the cafeteria because of the short lunch break, making it difficult to go to restaurants outside the factory. The cafeteria meals are also cheap, and because of the pandemic, eating out can become risky. At Changan Mattel, applicants were required to test negative for the COVID-19 nucleic acid test before they were interviewed and the factory also put up glass or cardboard dividers between each worker eating.
Dongyao Factory’s food is free, but the dining environment is worrying and there are issues with food hygiene. For example, workers found hair, rotten vegetables in their food and there was even a cockroach found in a worker’s lunch one day. There are not enough tables and chairs in the restaurant for workers to sit and eat. One table is shared by six workers, and their arms are touching each other. Many workers still need to squat on the ground to eat. Workers use their own tableware when getting food from the public rice containers, increasing the risk of spreading the coronavirus. We have yet to see Dongyao take any effective measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Chinese Labor laws requires employers to purchase social insurance for workers. Social insurance covers the five categories of pension, unemployment, maternity, medical, work injury and also a housing provident fund.
At Changan Mattel, workers only received social insurance after they had passed the probation period. The social insurance covered pension, unemployment insurance, medical insurance and the housing provident fund.
At Dongguan Dongyao short term workers signed a “Declaration Disagreeing to the Purchase of Social Insurance” to voluntarily give up the purchase of social insurance. However in reality, workers were not asked whether or not they wanted to purchase social insurance. At the same time, despite signing this declaration, the factory would still purchase social insurance for some workers. Long term workers receive social insurance after the probation period, and we are unsure which categories of social insurance the factory purchases for workers. Workers who were 50 years of age signed a service contract which mentioned that workers would be purchasing social insurance on their own, and the factory would only be purchasing commercial insurance for them.
Pregnancy and Maternity Protection
We are unsure whether Changan Mattel and Dongguan Dongyao purchased maternity insurance for workers.
The contracts at both factories stipulate that workers enjoy paid maternity leave, but it remains unclear how many days workers receive. At Changan Mattel, many workers did not know they had this leave as no one had explained the contract to them. A flowchart at the factory shows that workers can apply for maternity leave after three months of pregnancy. But several female workers who had given birth previously said it is difficult for female workers to continue working at the factory until they give birth. As there is a heavy workload with some workers exposed to chemicals, it can be very exhausting and harmful for pregnant women to continue working. So female workers generally aren’t able to enjoy maternity leave benefits and it is mainly management staff who take maternity leave. A female worker who was pregnant had to apply not to work night shifts, instead of the workshop director taking the initiative to switch her to working during the day. She eventually resigned because it was too exhausting to work at the factory.
The investigator did not find any other special facilities or benefits for pregnant women at both factories.
For years, we have urged toy companies to take measures to address persistent rights abuses in their supply chain. Yet, time and time again, we have found the same workers’ rights violations such as low wages, excessive overtime, insufficient protective equipment and lack of effective complaints mechanisms. Both Dongguan Dongyao and Changan Mattel are certified by the ICTI Ethical Toy Program. We specifically urged the Ethical Toy Program and Mattel after last year’s investigation into Foshan Mattel factory to take effective measures against sexual harassment and discrimination. However, our report shows they have failed to protect workers. For too long, workers have been treated as merely a “cog in the machine”. Toy sales have surged amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but companies have not channelled these profits into improving the lives of workers on their production line. Companies are well aware of the working conditions at their factory and have pressured factories to meet high production targets whilst driving production costs down, which has come at a cost to workers’ wellbeing. Companies ought to do more to improve the livelihoods of workers.