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Toxic Toys: Not Just a Health Issue for Kids

The young women who work in China's toy factories are often unaware of their own exposure to harmful toxins.
 
 
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Just as Detroit is famous for making cars and Napa for producing wine, Cheng Hai in Guangdong Province, not far from Hong Kong, is known for manufacturing toys for children all over the world, especially the United States. Chunfeng Shen at age 18 is already a three-year veteran toy maker in the city's industrial district.

She came from Fujian Province to work in a booming industry. While her factory produces toy bricks for more than 10 well-known brands, she didn't know whether their products would be exported or what their eventual price would be -- the foreign market is too far away and mysterious. She is even less aware about the controversies over China's toy product safety and her own potential exposure to unsafe paints. "I didn't want to go to school any more," she said. "I wanted to earn money."

China is the biggest toy manufacturing base in the world, with about 8,000 toy factories and three million workers. In 2006, China exported more than 22 billion toy parts, bringing in 7 billion U.S. dollars, of which 3.2 billion USD came from the United States. Women from all over China flock to Cheng Hai to work in its many toy factories. Most of the workers are women, said Yan Yang, a 26-year-old accountant at the Auldey toy factory, "because the factories need workers who can be manipulated flexibly and quickly." Of 2,000 Auldey workers in Cheng Hai, 70 percent are women.

For many of the young women who work in Cheng Hai, the toy industry offers better opportunities than other job prospects. Shen, for example, changed jobs within the industry three times before coming two months ago to the Xinjiqi toy factory, which was founded 10 years before by a local entrepreneur. Her father is a construction worker while her mother works at home as a housewife. Her two younger brothers are still in primary school. She says that many of the women come to Cheng Hai not because their families are terribly poor, but because they heard the toy business here was flourishing. Compared to women who work in other industries, they feel that they have relatively better working conditions.

The women workers in Cheng Hai Toy Industrial District have to work at least two four-hour shifts every day, earning about 135 USD a month, well above the 104 USD average for Chinese manufacturing jobs. "It is enough for my daily life," said Shen. The only change she has noticed is the recent elimination of overtime work, which has reduced her income at a time when the plants are usually bustling to meet holiday demands.

Her coworker, Cuiyun Jiang, left her hometown in Fujian Province to work at the LianXia Toy Factory eight years ago, because, she said, she could not get good marks in school. But Jiang is not content with the salary that she and Shen are paid. "We work very hard every day," she said. "I should send money home, but it's not enough." Her rural farming parents have four children. Two of her siblings are seeking work and one is still in middle school.

"We don't get our salaries paid every month regularly," said Jiang. "When we need money, we must borrow some from the boss first. The salaries are counted at the end of each year." If there is any breakdown in the payment chain from the multinational toy companies to the many tiers of subcontracted factory owners in China, the workers could potentially lose an entire year's wages.

According to Jiang, LianXia is a small toy contractor that employs about 20 women whose average age is 24. She makes toys for the Christmas season. The products are transported to Guangzhou, some to be exported at a much higher price. For example, they produce a foam snowman for export, which, Jiang noted, would be too expensive to buy for their own children, who have never seen snow in the subtropical climate of Cheng Hai.

Another toy worker, Xuerong Gao, came from Sichuan Province seven years ago and later got married in Cheng Hai. Now she spends most of her time caring for her four-year-old son, working part-time putting labels on toys at a factory that produces miniature cars, yoyo balls and other molded plastic toys. Her brother is a doctor and her sister manages a hotel in their hometown, so Gao does not have to worry about sending money to her parents and can focus on caring for her own family in her new hometown.

Most of the woman workers in the toy factories live for free in dormitories shared by up to a dozen women who sleep on bunk beds. Each room has fans and a toilet. Yang, the accountant at Auldey, said that supervisors at her factory are able to share an apartment with their own separate bedrooms, while ordinary workers must live in eight-person-rooms. In the limited free time available, she said, "Sometimes we go shopping. Or stay in the dorm, watching TV for entertainment." Some factories even invite professors to teach and train their employees. "We had a month-long training course about the basic skills of management."

Yang arrived in Cheng Hai from distant Hubei Province seven years ago. In Auldey, she was a worker on the production line before she was promoted to be an accountant. Her father teaches physics at middle school, and her younger sister is a senior at Sichuan University. Her mother likes speculating in stocks. Yang, now married, has moved with her husband into a rental apartment outside the factory.

None of the women interviewed for this story had any knowledge of the current problems facing China's toy industry. They were surprised to hear that their health may be at risk due to dangerous chemicals. Rather, they are concentrating on their own futures-in which they could encounter some difficult economic times if the industry falters.

"I want to run a shop by myself," Cuiyun Jiang says. "It doesn't matter to me what I sell." She didn't regret that she began to work at an early age. "The road I am walking is chosen by myself. There is no chance for me to go back."

Yang doesn't worry about chemicals at her factory. She is focused on her year-old daughter. "I want my daughter to learn more and see more," said Yang. If she saves enough money, she also wants to open business of her own -- a grocery store perhaps, not a toy factory.

Emily Xu is a freelancer in China. Zhang Jianyi is a junior journalism student at Cheung Kong School of Journalism and Communication at Shantou University in southern China.

 
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