When the glass doors fly open this Friday, riotous crowds will spill into a tide of mass consumption at Walmarts nationwide. But amidst the frenzy, the bleak undertow of global commerce will wash up against the rock-bottom prices: For workers on a distant shore, Black Friday caps another cycle of the round-the-clock drudgery driving the biggest shopping day of the year.
China Labor Watch’s (CLW) report on China’s toy industry is a seasonal reminder of how American families’ appetite for cheap toys is fed by not-so-fun factory jobs, in which workers struggle to sustain their own families on pennies an hour. The advocacy group reports:
In workshops that are hazardous to their health, millions of workers toil under cruel management, 11 hours a day, six days per week. Over the course of a year, a toy worker may only be able to see her parents and children one time.
In low-wage factories that bring Star Wars and Frozen toys to big-box shelves, field researchers reported observing up to 80-hour workweeks, widespread wage theft, and apparent violations of both corporate ethical sourcing codes and Chinese labor law—including age-discriminatory hiring, nonpayment of mandatory social insurance, and inadequate safety training. For example, at two suppliers, Winson and Jetta, employers reportedly “diverted” overtime hours to discount weekend work. As a result, CLW claims, “employing up to 11,000 workers, the two companies may be cheating workers out of $1 to 2 million a year.”
The true price of toys, according to CLW, is measured in the everyday suffering of workers in Chinese cities, who might spend all-day shifts contorting their bodies to mold doll heads or inhaling toxic toy paint fumes. For the Mattel Rock’ Em Sock’ Em Robots, sold on Amazon for $30, CLW reports: “each Winson worker earns only 0.05% the market value of the Rock ’Em Sock ’Em toy. Workers produce nonstop. Young workers sacrifice their youth and health…. Despite such sacrifice, a worker earns only 1/2000 the value of a toy she produces.”
As a brand and sales outlet, Walmart shapes working conditions in both Asia’s manfacturing hubs and the United States’ low-wage retail and logistics industries. While American Walmart associates are staging scattered Black Friday protests, more volatile labor dynamics are erupting in China. CLW details a recent uprising at a Mattel supplier factory, in which workers protested a months-long lag in wages and benefit payments during a lull in production. Riot police and K-9 units cracked down “to suppress the workers’ action and compel them to accept partial compensation.” Another uprising in July at the Jingyu toy factory in Shenzhen reportedly resulted in a strike being similarly squelched by police. Yet in response to CLW’s investigation, the toy industry’s corporate-monitoring organization ICTI-CARE took issue with the findings, commenting that the Jingyu dispute had been successfully resolved and stemmed partially from “poor communications” and “misunderstanding” between employees and management.