The Barbie blues: Workers describe 'awful' conditions at Mattel suppliers

Workers at a Chinese factory that makes toys for Mattel. Photo courtesy of China Labor Watch. 
 
 
Mattel, the company behind Barbie and many other toys, has come under fire after a labor watch organisation denounced working conditions at some of its suppliers’ factories in China. FRANCE 24 spoke to a worker who served as an undercover investigator for China Labor Watch.
 
The New York-based organization’s 94-page report, published earlier this month, listed numerous alleged legal and ethical violations at six factories, a small fraction of Mattel’s approximately 100 suppliers in China. These include underpaying workers, unsanitary conditions, inadequate safety training, unlawfully long hours, environmental pollution, and more.
 
All this was discovered during a six-month long probe, during which the group sent undercover investigators to work at the factories and interviewed more than 300 workers. Based on their findings, China Labor Watch estimates that these suppliers annually “steal” between 6 million and 8 million euros in wages from the six factories’ workers through a variety of means, including failure to pay overtime and benefits, as well as underreporting the number of hours worked.
 
 
All photos courtesy of China Labor Watch. 
 
Works making dolls at Foshan City Nanhai Sino-American factory.
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“Our managers were under a ton of pressure to produce toys quickly, and they took this out on us”

Mr Cheng (not his real name) worked as an undercover investigator for China Labor Watch. He lives in China, where he had previously worked as a regular factory worker.
 
Last spring, I applied for a job at the Boade toy factory [located in Shenzhen, in southern China], which is a Mattel supplier that makes toys for the American and European market. I was hired mid-May, and worked there until the end of June. My job was to carry merchandise around the factory.
 
When I started, I was given a 10-minute talk on what to do in case of a fire, but that was it. I didn’t get any other safety training. [By law, factory workers must undergo 24 hours of safety training.]
 
I worked 11 hours a day, from 8am to 9pm with an hour break for lunch and an hour break in the evening. Others worked 12 or 13 hours. [The legal limit is 9 hours per day. At this factory, some employees reportedly worked up to 100 hours of overtime per month – well above the legal limit of 36 hours of overtime]. I was paid 1,600 yuan [190 euros] per month, which is really not enough to live decently with. [In China, the average wage for private sector workers is about 300 euros. According to China Labor Watch’s report, workers at this factory and others were regularly paid a month late].

This pay stub, which reportedly belongs to an employee at Foshan City Nanhai Sino-American factory, states that he worked a total of 81.5 overtime hours in April. The legal maximum is 36. 
 
I lived in a cramped, dirty dorm with other factory workers. [Editor’s Note: It is common for Chinese factory workers to live in on-site dorms to save money. This also allows them to work longer hours]. There was no hot water, no kitchen. We lived four to a room, and had trouble sleeping because some of us worked days, while others worked nights.
 
A factory dorm room equipped with bunk beds.
 
“If you got sick, you lost your day’s wages”
 
The factory itself was quite unsanitary too. Dirty water was stocked, and dumped outside as soon as it started raining. Meanwhile, toxic substances were dumped in regular trashcans. Our only protection was face masks. It was also extremely hot in the factory, making it difficult to work. [According to China Labor Watch’s report, the factory did not pay workers extra when temperatures rose above 33 degrees Celsius, thus breaking the law]. It was awful. And if you got sick, you lost your day’s wages.
 
At the Baode factory, waste water is reportedly ejected directly into a nearby pond.
 
Our managers verbally abused us. They insulted workers who were slower than others. The managers were under a ton of pressure to produce toys quickly, and they took this out on us.
 
A worker sleeping in a break room at Guangda factory in Dongguan.

There were no unions at the factory that we could complain to. In any case, no one dared complain, because they were too afraid to lose their jobs.
 
While unions remain weak in China, strikes are becoming more common. In August, after Mr Cheng quit his job in late June, workers at the Boade factory managed to organise a strike to demand compensation for unpaid social insurance. In the end, they received only compensation for unpaid subsidies for working in high temperatures.
 
Workers on strike at Baode factory in August. 
 
In its report, China Labor Watch argued that Mattel, the world’s largest toymaker, is responsible for violations in its supply chain. This is far from the first time the organisation investigates Mattel suppliers; they have put out several reports castigating them since 2000. Their last, released in 2012, reported on conditions at four different factories. Following that investigation, Mattel had written to China Labor Watch saying that “with few exceptions, the allegations are unfounded”.
 
This time, the company has responded by announcing that it would review working conditions at the six factories featured in this year’s report.
 
To try to make sure it follows through, the French NGO "Peuples Solidaires" has started a petition called "Stop Barbie, the repeat offender" addressed to Mattel's CEO, Bryan Stockton.
 
A stack of doll arms.
 
According to China Labor Watch, emergency exits were kept locked at the Baode factory.
 
Workers napping at the factory during a break at Metron Plastics and Electronics factory in Dongguan.
 
 
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure (@gjfaure).
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