The China Syndrome

The China Syndrome

Worried about toxic toys from China? Worry, too, about Chinese workers exposed to the poisons.


It doesn’t take much to ratchet up the anxiety of American parents. Reactions to the ongoing revelations about tainted products from China took a seismic leap this summer when Mattel recalled millions of toys found to be contaminated with lead paint. These included brands in the top rank of children’s consciousness–Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer and Barbie. As the recalls continued for contaminated toys and other defective products, the company’s apologies came thick and fast, including to the government of China (and implicitly to the global business community) for having jeopardized the entire “Made in China” operation. Bob Eckert, Mattel’s CEO, has had to issue unusually strenuous assurances to consumers (“Because your children are our children, too”) that the safety of children is paramount to the company.

But no such assurances are likely to be offered to the workers in the firm’s South China supplier factories, who routinely handle toxic materials as part of their job. Nor has the media had anything to say about their plight. For every American child who might come in contact with a contaminated toy train, thousands of teenage girls toil twelve hours a day, inhaling poisonous fumes in factories that are often firetraps, for a pittance. These workplace hazards have been well documented over the years by the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, Asia Monitor Resources Center, China Labor Watch and the National Labor Committee. But antisweatshop activists in these organizations have been unable to prick the conscience of toy consumers as effectively as they have with garment shoppers.

That may change, and not just because of the toy scare. The problems with imports from China began last spring with deaths caused by melamine-laced pet foods retailed by Del Monte, Nestlé Purina and Menu Foods. Next to kids, pets are the most vulnerable and intimately loved of all family members, and so the anxiety hit home quickly. And the list went on: dodgy drugs, defective automobile tires, poisonous toothpaste, combustible computer batteries, toxic seafood. By the end of the summer, every product sent from China was suspect. Politically, the scandals were a godsend for China-bashers on Capitol Hill and talk-radio, where many smug lectures were offered to Beijing about how to put its regulatory house in order.

CEOs like Eckert had much more to worry about. The vast sums they spend on building and polishing corporate brands is all about winning consumer trust, which can evaporate overnight when tainted products show up. In addition, companies shell out an estimated $31 billion annually on “corporate social responsibility” PR, aimed in large part at redeeming brands tarnished by sweatshop exposés. Yet headlines about contaminated goods in onshore shopping baskets are much more threatening to brand reputations than disclosures about substandard working conditions in offshore factories.

As the branding crisis deepened, officials in Washington and Beijing rushed to protect the lucrative US-China trade. Congressional committees called hearings, the Consumer Product Safety Commission was urged to upgrade its procedures and corporations that have long resisted third-party monitoring of their offshore suppliers’ workplaces leapt to embrace independent testing and monitoring of their imports. Beijing, for its part, closed down some factories, beefed up inspections and even executed its former chief of food and drug regulation. But all these measures are about containing the damage close to the point of consumption, and none of them get to the root causes of the problems, which lie in the factories themselves and in the contracting chain of command.

Citizens of affluent countries are used to thinking that their dirtiest and most dangerous industries (not to mention their waste products) can be sent offshore, out of sight and out of mind. But these risks are not exported to the global South on a one-way ticket. They return to us through their toxic side effects in consumer commodities and food. Many environmental problems are local in character and can be contained, but unfettered free trade means that now almost everyone can be exposed to hazards that originate thousands of miles away. This year’s product safety scandals have delivered that message loud and clear.

Thirty years ago, ecology pioneer and Citizens Party founder Barry Commoner argued that environmental protections have to be assured at the point of production. It is ineffective to deal with products’ environmental impact further along in their life cycle, and least of all at their endpoint, waste disposal. In the decades since Commoner pointed this out, global manufacturers and their subcontracting chains have emerged as the most destructive example of how to ignore his lesson. Abdicating responsibility for protecting workers and their environment at the bottom of the chain is a threat to life and limb all along it.

If American consumers want assurances, there is no point in waiting for Beijing or Washington to take action. Companies have to be forced to recognize that the best way to guarantee consumer safety is to ensure adequate workplace protections and benefits in the lowest of their supplier factories. If you sicken workers there, chances are you will sicken, and alienate, your precious customers here. The publicity from this year’s recalls hands activists a perfect opportunity to promote that lesson in the lead-up to the holiday buying season. For it is in these peak delivery months that South China’s factory workers are driven hardest and most brutally to make America’s children, and its CEOs, the happiest people on earth.

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