The toy industry is an US$83 billion dollar global giant. Toys are in high demand all over the world, especially around Christmas time. In order to meet these demands there is a human and environmental cost. Child labour, worker deaths, suicide and eco-disasters are just some of the hidden cost of our treasured toys.1
Where are toys made?
Toys are made in factories in countries like China where laws are very different from those in Europe or North America. This means that the workers have poor working conditions: they are paid very little for the long hours they work, forced overtime, little breaks, no social benefits like maternity leave, no contract of employment and poor ventilation which can at times be dangerous when dealing with fumes coming out of glues and chemicals. Injured workers report that factory management does not show interest in workers' well-being. If aged over thirty women are considered old to work at these factories. These kind of factories are called sweatshops. Sometimes children work in sweat shops too.
A worker's experience - Fatima's workday
Fatima is one of the workers who makes these toys. She is expecting a baby and has to work as her husband who had an accident in another factory can't work anymore. It's peak season, Christmas, and last months she worked 120 more hours without having a single day off.
It's 8 am and Fatima's shift has started. Fatima doesn't mind the packing but she can't stand the paint station where spray is used to paint tiny vehicles. The room has no windows and the fumes make her feel dizzy and sick. Yesterday she passed out and had to be taken outside. She lost a whole afternoon pay because she left the station without asking for an "off-duty" permit. She is worried about her growing baby.
Fatima makes sure she gets a toilet pass before 10pm. After that, the workers have to use barrels of water as the flushing water is turned off.
The supervisors are strict but the manager is worse. Last week Fatima made over 900 model cars. She filled in her work log and the manager fined her some of her wages for missing her target. Fatima was so tired she couldn't remember her target but she knows she couldn't have worked any harder or faster.
It's midnight and half-asleep, Fatima now leaves the assembly line-for the bus ride home.2
Like Fatima there are thousands of workers who work in these conditions.
What can be done to improve these working conditions?
Campaigners say that it will take governments, companies and consumers to all play their part. Pope Francis in address to the United Nations called for “concrete steps and immediate measures for … putting an end as quickly as possible to the phenomenon of … human trafficking and slave labour. We need to ensure that our institutions are truly effective in the struggle against all these scourges.”
But we, as consumers, can also do a lot! We can shop in a better way. Buying choosing fair trade or ethical products we are giving a message that the environment and people's lives are important. Through shopping we can support companies which treat their employees with care and respect the environment.
Examples of companies which sell ethical toys are:
- www.ilovetoys.co.uk which sells toys with reasonable prices which are fairly traded or ethical.
- www.babipur.co.uk which sells organic, chemical free, and fair trade toys.
- www.tradicraft.co.uk which sells fair trade toys and more.
To know which toy companies to choose/avoid you can visit:
- www.ethicalconsumer.org for an intensive updated guide on various companies and products (not only toys)
- www.icti-care.org. When you click on the "committed brands" button you will learn which companies are committed to changing things for the better.
Of course, businesses and governments have to do their part. But history shows that some truths start being told from the grass roots. Votes for women, ending apartheid in South Africa, the minimum wage, and many other significant moments were brought about by ordinary people speaking truth to power. We can also be part of the community who has started to play and shop fair.
This article was compiled by Suzanne Vella from the following sources:
1,2The true cost of toys, Mary Colson, 2013.
Photos by German photographer Michael Wolf who visited five toy factories in China.
- International Council of Toy Industries
- The International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour
- Real life stories: Child Worker, Catherine Chambers, 2005.
- Iqbal, Francesco D'Adamo, 2009. A historical fictional book based on the real life story of Iqbal Masih a ten year old slave boy who escaped from a factory.
- Social Justice
Published: November 2016