Human Rights for Workers Bulletin

Vol. I, No.2: February 23, 1996  


[The Bear is Crying]

'Our Children Don't Need Blood-Stained Toys'

Pressed by Chinese government officials to reduce the 12-hour workdays in its China factories, a large Hong Kong-based toy company, Kader Enterprises Ltd., refused. "We told them: this is the toy biz. If you don't allow us to do things our way, we'll close down our Chinese factories." In recounting the refusal to a Business Week reporter in 1988, a Kader official was frankly expressing a common attitude in the booming industry.

Has the toy industry's attitude changed since then? Not according to a report of a non-governmental group based in Hong Kong, the Coalition for the Charter on the Safe Production of Toys.

China is now by far the world's largest manufacturer of toys, with exports worth some $3 billion a year. But, says the Coalition report, the thriving industry's 1.3 million workers, mostly females in their teens or slightly older, "fail to gain their due rewards" and are grossly exploited in other ways--to the point that their "lives are even sacrificed for the sake of economic interests." Since the toys are made in China under contract, the foreign company buying the toys "focus only on design and the marketing of its products," and seldom concern themselves with how the workers making the product are treated.

 The Coalition report, based mostly on interviews with workers of nine factories making toys for export, documents at great length how these workers are victimized. Eight of the nine factories studied, all in booming Guangdong province adjoining Hong Kong, pay their workers less than the minimum wage (around 25 cents an hour) laid down by law. To increase their hold on their work force, the factories commonly withhold the first month's wages and return it only when the worker, with management's permission, leaves her employment.

 Among the other abuses widely found in the factories:

Because Hong Kong companies are responsible for financing so much of the toy production in south China, the group of non-governmental organizations in Hong Kong formed the Coalition and took it upon themselves to put labor reform pressures on the leaders of Hong Kong's toy biz. Cold-shouldered by the managements, the Coalition has launched an international campaign focused on the theme "Our Children Don't Need Blood-Stained Toys." We have reproduced the statement adopted at a January conference in Hong Kong, as well as the group's proposed Charter to protect the lives and limbs of toy workers.

How Come So Much On China?

The emphasis on China in these pages must puzzle some. But I for one am puzzled by the inadequate attention given to China in the media. Fareed Zakaria, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, grapples with this issue in the 2/18/96 New York Times Magazine. He writes:
"In Somerset Maugham's novel about novelists, 'Cakes and Ale,' one of the characters belittles Henry James for having 'turned his back on one of the great events of the world's history, the rise of the United States, in order to report tittle-tattle at tea parties in English country houses.' Today, as we talk about peace plans in Bosnia, elections in Haiti, and hostages in Chechnya, there is a danger of similarly neglecting the defining international political event of this era--the rise of China to world power."
My own special concern is the plight of working men and women in China and the regime's persecution of its own people, especially Wei Jingsheng, Han Dongfang, and other moderate and non-violent reformers who could help China pass peacefully through its present period. See China's Wei. At the same time, I cannot avoid also being concerned by other grim realities in the People's Republic--especially by China's massive military build-up and the large U.S. financial and technological contribution to that build-up. China's new military power is often described as a threat only to its neighbors. But the threat is larger: "China is the only country in the world that targets the United States with nuclear weapons"--a little-publicized fact that I found buried in two 1994 articles, one in the New York Times and the other in Newsweek.


How 'Free Traders' Promote Protectionism

The success of Pat Buchanan in the Presidential primaries should be a wake-up call to the large technocratic community in and out of government that is promoting an extreme form of free trade stripped bare of all concern for the rights of ordinary working men and women. The economists in that community carry an especially heavy responsibility for what is happening.

 For decades now mainstream economists, under a mantle of infallibility rarely worn these days outside the Vatican, have been propagating successive generations of college students with a simplistic "free trade" doctrine that overrides every other principle except profit. As a result, far too much of public policy, nationally and internationally, is now set by blindly following free market abstractions that do not quite fit modern world realities.

 Buchanan is sharply attacking those abstractions. Economists and other believers are counterattacking, often with smear words ("lunatic fringe stuff"). Indeed, Buchanan deserves to be criticized wherever he is wrong. He raises an outcry on how free trade, as presently constituted, harms many Americans, but in fact workers elsewhere are also losing out from the benefits of the expanding global economy. Yet he has struck a chord among many people afflicted with "downsizing" or the fear of downsizing. The job and trade problems Buchanan raises deserve to be seriously discussed, rather than angrily dismissed. Unfortunately, no Presidential candidate has so far demonstrated the kind of vision that these issues demand.

 The answers are not simple, but the Presidential race would be an ideal time for an open discussion, even a debate, about downsizing, "free trade," and so-called "protectionism." Slanders will not make the issues go away. Failure to address them honestly will only foster the nationalistic protectionism that Buchanan advocates.

Robert A. Senser
Editor, Human Rights for Workers
Copyright 1996 Robert A. Senser  (Send e-mail)

 Bulletin #2: February 23, 1996