Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Toy Recalls and Globalization

Mattel has issued another toy recall, putting its total for recalled toys somewhere between 18 and 19 million (including the magnet-toy recall and the lead-paint recall from earlier this summer. Although no injuries have been linked to the latest batch of recalled toys, an earlier line of recalled toys (CBC says Polly Pocket playsets) caused serious injury to at least three kids who swallowed magnets. According to today's CBC coverage:
The bulk of Tuesday's recall covered magnetic toys manufactured between 2002 and January 2007, and expanded on a similar recall made in November 2006. Also included in Tuesday's recall were 436,000 Sarge brand cars, because the surface paint could contain lead levels in excess of U.S. federal standards.

Under current U.S. regulations, children's products found to have more than 0.06 per cent lead accessible to users are subject to a recall.

"There is no excuse for lead to be found in toys entering this country," Nord said. "It's totally unacceptable and it needs to stop."

The blame, it seems, is being squarely placed on quality control, as well as Chinese contractors in violation of corporate standards. But perhaps a better way to think about all this is in terms of larger trends within globalization, such as the increased reliance of transnational corporations on offshore labour and the subsequent throttling of production costs (and therefore production budgets). The $22 billion toy market [$71 billion globally] makes up a large portion of our imported consumer goods and 60 percent of all toys sold in Canada are made in China (Jones, 2004). Behind the current string of recalls lie the pressures and disparities created by the kind of labour conditions that arise from so much "offshore" production...labour that is displaced onto developing countries and regions in order to shrink production costs by creating an underpaid and undervalued labour force that is often comprised of women and children.

Political economic theorists point to the global issues that are often left ignored when large, mostly US-based, conglomerates control the majority of resources in a transnational industry, as is the case with the toy market. Langer (2004) argues that the toy industry’s association of “childhood with play, fun and toys situates toyshops and toy makers as part of the enchanted landscape of childhood” (p.253), naturalizing the current state of the children’s market while the more problematic aspects of global toy production remain obscured. NGO and human rights discourse on global toy production emphasizes the young age of toy factory workers, who Langer argues are often “constructed as ‘little more than children themselves’” (p.259), as well as the low wages, high levels of occupational hazard, and long work hours endured by a largely rural, largely migrant labour force. While the average North American toy maker earns $11 an hour, in 2000 Chinese toy workers were earning an average of 30 cents an hour. While it wasn't specified in the article, I suspect that stat applies to adults and that things might be much different for child "employees."

In an open letter written in December 2003, (Can.) Senator Consiglio Di Nino had this to say about child labour in the toy industry:
More often than not, this is the reality behind the manufacture of children’s toys. Toys are not manufactured by diminutive elves in workshops, but by diminutive beings of another kind… children. China is a popular choice for North American manufacturers because labour is cheap and plentiful. International news reports hint that child labour is prevalent in China, and factory managers go to great lengths to conceal the epidemic. United Press International cites a provincial labour official who confided that, “factory managers are routinely tipped off about inspections and will send child workers home.”

China is by no means the only country in which child labour is widespread; indeed, it is a global issue. Human Rights Watch is particularly critical of bonded labour practices in India and Pakistan, where an estimated 15 million children are being exploited, primarily in the manufacture of textiles. The International Right to Know Campaign, a movement supported by international organizations such as Amnesty International USA, Global Exchange, and Oxfam America, estimates that there are 211 million child labourers worldwide, over half of whom work in China [In 2004, UNICEF increased that estimate to 246 million].

The vast majority of North American multinationals have corporate codes of conduct that apply to their global suppliers. Evidence suggests, however, that these codes are poorly enforced and egregious labour rights violations are the norm. These violations have been documented extensively by the International Right to Know Campaign and by human rights groups across Asia. These organizations indicate that the ineffectiveness of corporate codes of conduct stems from the fact that independent third parties do not conduct the factory audits mandated by these codes and we are told that factory owners are usually notified of the audits in advance.

Of course, this doesn't 100% prove that Mattel -- the world's largest toy company -- has indirectly employed child labour, or that the recalled toys are directly linked to impoverished manufacturing conditions. And I'm certain they didn't know that lead paint was being used by their suppliers, and that the damage control they now face will be a burden that far outweighs any advantage that could have ever been accrued from cutting costs in safety measures. But the fact is, it's unreasonable to expect that costs and work conditions can be continuously cut, threatened and squeezed without any kind of trade off or consequence. The lack of accountability and transparency within the toy industry, combined with known statistics of child labour in the toy manufacturing industry and of the impoverished working conditions in China and other production zones, demands a more thorough consideration of the complicity of North American toy companies (and the toy market!) in creating the substandard conditions from which substandard products have spawned.

These issues got a lot of press coverage a few years ago, when anti-globalization was "hot" and transnational trade was being put under the microscope. At that time, a woman from Victoria, BC, named Sarah Cox wrote a scathing expose of the toy manufacture industry in various parts of Asia called The Secret Life of Toys, which I unfortunately can no longer track down online. Cox did field work in various toy factories that manufactured toys sold in the West, and found rampant workers' rights violations and poor working conditions. But attention to these issues has died down today, and although all of the big toy corporations (Hasbro, Mattel, Irwin) manufacture a large portion of their toys in China, it's been difficult for researchers and journalists to make direct links between specific toy companies and specific toy factories. The transnational conglomerates don't commonly release details about their overseas partners. According to Chelsea Jones, writing for Briarpatch magazine in 2004,
Toy companies such as Mattel hold back names of their suppliers. This means that any toy made by Mattel could have been manufactured by any one of about 50 Chinese factories contracted by the company, or in a factory Mattel may own with private investors. Or it could be that parts of the toy, including it’s packaging, have been made in one of many factories jointly owned by the company and contractors small enough not to be named or legally acknowledged.

In 1998, George Irwin, the president of Irwin Toy Ltd. said that the reason for the strict confidentiality surrounding toy factories is due to the competitiveness within the industry. “We guard very jealously our vendors,” Irwin says, “because we don’t want any of our competitors to get an advantage by knowing who they are.” Sixty percent of Irwin’s toys are produced overseas, primarily in China and Malaysia.

For more up to date info on working conditions and child labour in China, with a healthy amount of focus placed on the toy industry in particular, check out this new report conducted by the Hong Kong Liaison Office.

Langer, B. (2004). “The Business of Branded Enchantment: Ambivalence and disjuncture in the global children’s culture industry”, Journal of Consumer Culture, 4(2), pp.251-277.

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