By Dan Katz
China is becoming the world's major producer of Christmas toys and decorations, making 70 percent of the world's toys. Its exports have doubled in just eight years.
also Chinese trade unionists face execution
China exported about US$1.4 billion in Christmas-related goods in the first 10 months of 2002, more than half of them to the United States.
Santa's toys are churned out in more than 6,000 factories in the south-eastern coastal regions where 1.5 million young Chinese peasant women work 12 or 14 hours a day, inhaling toxic fumes, living in cramped company dormitories 15 to a room and earning just 30 cents an hour. These women workers have just two days off a month, although by law they are entitled to a 40-hour working week and weekends.
"The Chinese toy factory workers are more exploited than before," says May Wong of the Asia Monitor Resource Centre. Wages are going down and workers have no contracts or unions.
Hong Kong and Taiwanese companies that make goods for the likes of Disney, Hasbro and Mattel have shifted production to China. The cheap, un-unionised labour of China has also prompted manufacturers to leave such countries as Thailand and Indonesia. One of the main reasons they are moving to China is the increase in workers' activism in countries like Indonesia.
While Chinese workers may form many informal groups to protect their rights, those groups which have independent or political objectives are subjected to severe government repression. Leaders are often jailed, dismissed or beaten up by security personnel.
An investigation in 2000 by the Hong Kong-based Asia Monitor Resource Center into the price of Mattel Barbie dolls, half of which are made in China, found that of the dolls' $10 retail price, $8 goes to transportation, marketing, retailing, wholesale and profit for Mattel. Of the remaining $2, $1 is shared by the management and transportation in Hong Kong, and 65 cents is spent on the raw materials from Taiwan, Japan, the United States and Saudi Arabia. The remaining 35 cents is earned by producers in China for providing factory sites, labour and electricity.
A toy coalition campaign was launched in 1994, involving the Asia Monitor Resource Center and the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee. The coalition was formed to help compensate the victims of 1993 Zhili toy factory fire in Shenzhen, southern China, and to improve the working conditions of toy-industry workers.
The fire, which broke out in 1993 at a Hong Kong-owned company in nearby Shenzhen, left 87 workers dead and 47 injured. At the time of the fire, some 400 workers were on the site producing Christmas toys for the Italian toy brand Chicco.
Seven years passed before the victims received compensation. The company gave HK$1.5 million (US$192,000) to the workers but this was never paid out because a Chinese court withheld the list of victims' names. In 1999, the money went to a Chinese mainland charity. Campaigners traced the names of the victims themselves and gathered 120 names of families scattered in five Chinese provinces. The company eventually paid each one 10,227 yuan (US$1,290) - far less than what they needed for their medical fees and rehabilitation.
More information: www.nosweat.org.uk
Support Chinese and Hong Kong workers
Two Chinese labour leaders - Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang - who took part in a big demonstration last year could face the death penalty. The two men were arrested in March following protests in the north-eastern city of Liaoyang and are now facing charges of subversion, for which they could be executed.
China Labor Watch has been following their story and that of other Chinese workers struggling for their rights. To find out how to take action in their defence go to the campaign's website:www.chinalaborwatch.org
The Hong Kong government plans to introduce a new "anti-subversion law" which, if enacted, will stop workers in Hong Kong from coming together as trade unionists to campaign for their existing rights or improved rights, or even to campaign for the rights of workers on the mainland.
Send a protest email to Mr. Tung Chee Hua, the HKSAR Chief Executive, showing support for the campaign launched by the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions and China Labour Bulletin.
Go to www.labourstart.org/actnow/20021227.shtml to find out more.