Attention shoppers: With the holiday season fast approaching isn’t it time to give your child a doll or toy-train not made in a sweatshop?
That’s the message labor rights advocates are now trying to get across- that consumers fretting about unsafe toys should also be alarmed about unsafe toy-making conditions. And they are directing part of their energy toward supporting “The Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act”, a bill with 13 Senate co-sponsors, including Hillary Clinton, that calls for a ban on importing all sweatshop-made products.
“If you move production to Chinese factories that cut every possible corner to lower costs,” said bill co-sponsor and North Dakota Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing today, “You end up with young women worked to death in China and products that end up poisoning our kids here at home.”
But as The Nation pointed out in a recent editorial, the connection is still not being made between a lead-tained $29.99 Barbie and a worker paid 19 cents an hour to make that Barbie. Charles Kernaghan, Director of the National Labor Committee, said after the hearing that it’s “very difficult for parents whose child gets a toy with lead to think about workers 5,000 miles away.”
Kernaghan reported during the hearing on internal audits of Mattel, where the biggest toy company in the U.S. forced employees to work 80 to 90 hours a week. Kernaghan testifed that the Chinese Government gave Mattel a waiver that allowed them to disregard Chinese minimum wage and overtime rules. Mattel representatives declined an invitation to appear at the hearing.
China accounts for almost 90 percent of toys brought into the U.S. and 80 percent of all toys purchased in the country. So far American companies like Mattel have largely been able to seek the cheapest labor while preventing even the Chinese government from creating labor standards. “The United States Chamber of Commerce is telling the authoritarian Chinese government that they are giving workers too many worker rights,” railed Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders. “Can you believe that?”
What Sanders called the U.S.-China policy of “unfettered free trade” shows signs of gradual change. Fast-track authority expired this summer, which means Congress no longer will vote yes or no on trade agreements without being able to offer amendments on, for instance, labor standards. And proponents of the Senate bill argue that if Mattel et. al keeps staying in the news, discussion will eventually move beyond the “Toxic Toys” headlines.