Posted July 26, 2008 at 12:02 pm, in From the USW International President
By Leo W. Gerard
Over the past year, American parents rebuffed foreign-made toys when they contained leaded paint, poisonous cadmium beads or the “date rape” drug.
These toxic toys created a scandal as it became clear that the Bush administration’s deliberately stripped down Consumer Product Safety Commission was not protecting American children and families from dangerous imports. Republicans eschew government regulation, but its absence has allowed our supermarkets to sell us imported tainted toothpaste and deadly dog food.
Now, the National Labor Committee (NLC), which often works with the United Steelworkers to combat sweatshop labor conditions internationally, has released an investigation of the Kai Da Toy Factory in Shenzhen City, China, where the Sesame Street Kid K’Nex Ernie construction kits are assembled, that raises a moral question for American parents: Are they willing to rebuff toys that are toxic to other people’s children?
In this case, it’s the children of Chinese parents who the National Labor Committee found work in grueling, sweatshop conditions to assemble toys that are supposed to bring joy to American boys and girls, toys of Ernie that, ironically, is the character symbolizing playfulness, not work, on Sesame Street.
Even if the Ernie K’Nex toy isn’t bathed in lead paint, the National Labor Committee inquiry found that he’s drenched in the sweat of young workers, including some child laborers. Here is what the NLC discovered:
The 600 workers at the factory, including 100 16-year-olds, routinely put in 13 to 15-hour days, and work seven-day weeks for months on end. Occasionally, they’re required to endure 23½-hour work days. The weekly overtime is mandatory, even though it exceeds China’s legal limits.
Despite the long hours, workers earn less than one cent per Ernie doll they assemble – 43 cents an hour. That is below Shenzhen City’s minimum wage of 62 cents an hour. And, like the minimum wage in the U.S., that is not subsistence earnings in China. After the factory deducts for room and board, the workers receive only about 28 cents an hour.
The rooms are shared by eight workers, sleeping on metal bunk beds, washing their clothes in sinks, and using communal bathrooms. Many of these workers are young teenagers, who pay additional money toward tuition with the hope of eventually attending technical schools.
Younger children who were working in the factory earlier this year disappeared after a Chinese newspaper, Southern Metropolis, revealed in April that hundreds, if not thousands, of children from impoverished areas in Liangshan Prefecture in Sichuan Province were being sold to work as slave laborers in toy and garment factories.
The Kai Da factory does not cover health care and will dock pay if workers refuse overtime. In addition, if a worker quits before a committed period of time elapses, typically six months, the factory will withhold an entire month’s pay.
These practices are all illegal under Chinese law – the excessive overtime, paying less than minimum wage, and not providing health care. But the National Labor Committee documented them.
K’Nex responded to the report by saying: “We are a family owned company, and we are committed to the safety and welfare of children. The . . .toy factory is ICTI (International Council of Toy Industries) certified, which means that we comply with the highest safety and labor laws in the toy industry. We take the NLC allegations very seriously, and as a result we are launching an immediate investigation.”
The question, however, is whether K’Nex, or any multinational, is devoted only to the safety and welfare of customer-children and not to that of laborer-children who produce the products.
Or, really, more fundamentally, how did we get ourselves into a situation in which children in China are assembling Ernie toys for children in America? Surely the late Mr. Rogers, were he here to advise us, would say there’s something deeply wrong with this neighborhood. Sesame Street could benefit from a little morality training from Rogers, a Presbyterian minister: It’s wrong to abuse one child so another may play with a cheap Ernie toy. It’s wrong to abuse a child for corporate profit.
There’s something else at play here as well. As children began to toil in China, factories closed in the U.S. The American toy industry lost nearly 60 percent of its jobs over the past 15 years. U.S. factories closed. American workers found themselves unemployed. Now, Chinese adolescents are assembling toys in sweatshops for American parents to buy and wrap for Christmas for their children – well, the American parents who still have jobs and houses in which to put those Christmas trees anyway.
It’s difficult not to buy a toy made in China with 85 percent of those in U.S. stores made there now. But a parent wouldn’t knowingly hand his own child a dangerous toy, one with lead paint or the Aqua-dots kit with its “date rape” chemical substituted by a Chinese manufacturer.
American parents must provide the same consideration to Chinese youngsters and boycott toys that have endangered them by working them in sweatshops. The Sesame Street Kid K’Nex “Ernie” is one of those toys.
The National Labor Committee investigation has provided us with that documentation.
No moral American can enjoy seeing their child play with a toy covered with the sweat of a child laborer. We must have fair trade agreements and regulation that ensure products imported into the U.S. are manufactured in factories that, at the very least, conform to the minimum child labor, wage and overtime laws of the countries of origin.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, has introduced legislation, the Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act, supported by the NLC and the USW, that would make it illegal it import or export goods made with sweatshop labor.
If we as a country can protect property with trademarks and copyrights, and if we can defend foreign pets by prohibiting the importation of cat and dog fur, it’s time to pass Dorgan’s bill protecting human beings from degrading and inhumane sweatshop conditions.