Re­vealed: Dis­ney's £35 Ariel doll earns a Chi­nese worker 1p

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines - Gethin Cham­ber­lain

She sings. She sparkles. And she’s made by women paid just 1p for each doll that shim­mers off shop shelves.

This Christ­mas, tens of thou­sands of chil­dren the world over will ex­cit­edly tear the wrap­ping pa­per off an Ariel doll – Dis­ney’s Lit­tle Mer­maid – se­cure in the knowl­edge that it was made for them by Santa’s happy elves at the north pole.

The re­al­ity would come as a cruel sur­prise. For elves, read Chi­nese fac­tory work­ers. For the north pole, read the city of Heyuan. And for happy, read mis­er­able – from il­le­gally long work­ing hours and ex­haus­tion to wages too low to sup­port a fam­ily.

An in­ves­ti­ga­tion pub­lished on Thurs­day by rights groups Sol­i­dar Suisse and China La­bor Watch, in part­ner­ship with the Guardian, found ev­i­dence of ex­ces­sive and il­le­gal over­time, ba­sic pay rates as low as 85p an hour, no hol­i­day or sick pay and high lev­els of ex­haus­tion among the largely fe­male work­force mak­ing toys for Dis­ney, Mat­tel’s Fisher Price brand and other in­ter­na­tional toy com­pa­nies.

Work­ers re­ported be­ing fined or dis­missed if they took three or more days off sick.

Staff at the Wah Tung fac­tory in the city of Heyuan said that they worked 175 hours of over­time in a month, with only one day off over that pe­riod – both breaches of Chi­nese labour law and toy in­dus­try codes of con­duct.

The ba­sic wage on the line is 7.5 Chi­nese yuan (85p) – le­gal, but so low that work­ers say they feel obliged to work over­time. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which took place ear­lier this year, also high­lighted a sig­nif­i­cant gen­der im­bal­ance, with men out­num­ber­ing women nine to one in man­age­ment roles but women mak­ing up 80% of the work­force.

Heyuan is a city of roughly 3 mil­lion peo­ple in Guang­dong prov­ince, south­east China.

It is home to Wah Tung (Heyuan) Toy Man­u­fac­tur­ing Ltd, where about 2,000 work­ers pro­duce a range of mainly plas­tic toys and elec­tron­ics.

This is where Dis­ney makes the Princess Sing & Sparkle Ariel doll that sells for £34.99. Many on­line stores have sold out of stock and are await­ing a fresh de­liv­ery a few days be­fore Christ­mas.

At the peak of pro­duc­tion, in late sum­mer, as many as 2,400 of the dolls were rolling off the Wah Tung pro­duc­tion line each day.

The doll comes with a mane of deep red hair and a glit­tery tail that acts like a snow globe. In the last quar­ter it helped Dis­ney’s con­sumer prod­ucts divi­sion to an op­er­at­ing in­come of £264m on rev­enue of £880m.

But the in­ves­ti­ga­tion found that, when costs were bro­ken down, each of the women on the pro­duc­tion line was re­ceiv­ing just 1p for ev­ery doll pro­duced.*

The in­ves­ti­ga­tor joined the Sing & Sparkle as­sem­bly line for a month dur­ing the sum­mer. From her own ex­pe­ri­ence and in­ter­views with fel­low work­ers, she found daily over­time var­ied be­tween two and five hours and that, with week­ends in­cluded, over­time would some­times hit 175 hours a month – nearly five times the le­gal limit of 36 hours.

In low sea­son, work­ers earned about 2,000 Chi­nese yuan a month (£228); dur­ing peak sea­son, they gen­er­ally took home about 3,000 yuan. A sur­vey last year put the av­er­age Chi­nese monthly salary at 7,665 yuan.

Work­ers were ex­pected to ar­rive 10 min­utes be­fore the start of their shifts; many re­ported feel­ing ex­ces­sively tired be­cause of the long hours. Pho­to­graphs from the pro­duc­tion lines show work­ers asleep or rest­ing dur­ing breaks.

In her di­ary, the in­ves­ti­ga­tor noted: “At 5pm, the worker be­hind me said she felt so tired that her back was sore. She wanted to sleep so badly but couldn’t, since our shift wasn’t over yet. She won­dered why was time go­ing by so slowly. I said that I also felt time was go­ing by very slowly. When you’re con­stantly do­ing the same thing over and over again, you start to feel dizzy and your vi­sion be­comes blurry.”

She also noted that most of her col­leagues were women over the age of 45 who were drawn to the work be­cause they were “poorly ed­u­cated, well-be­haved, obe­di­ent, and care more about chil­dren and fam­ily”. Fac­to­ries like them be­cause “they are less likely to make trou­ble and eas­ier to man­age” than men, she wrote.

“There were a lot of fe­male work­ers at the toy fac­tory and some of them were older. So, when they worked, they needed to wear read­ing glasses. They worked very care­fully and quickly, but some of the time, the line leader would say they worked too slowly or would yell at them. When­ever the fe­male work­ers were be­ing yelled at, they would never say a word in re­turn and would si­lently con­tinue work­ing on the task at hand.”

Si­mone Was­mann, from Sol­i­dar Suisse, urged toy com­pa­nies to share some of their prof­its with work­ers.

“Chil­dren love Dis­ney’s toys but we want their par­ents to un­der­stand that there’s no Christ­mas magic go­ing on here: those toys were made with cheap labour by women work­ing il­le­gally long hours for pen­nies.

“For them, it is just day af­ter day of mis­ery. They don’t work in those fac­to­ries long into the night be­cause they want to: they do that be­cause it is the only way they can make enough money to live.”

She said Dis­ney could af­ford to pay higher prices to en­sure wage in­creases. “It’s time the com­pany gave some­thing back to the peo­ple who make their mer­chan­dise by rais­ing their wages, cut­ting their hours and mak­ing the fac­to­ries obey the law [on over­time]. A few pen­nies on the price of a doll or a few pen­nies less in the com­pany’s pock­ets would en­able work­ers to earn a liv­ing wage.”

Many of the big­gest toy mak­ers – in­clud­ing Dis­ney and Mat­tel – are mem­bers of the In­ter­na­tional Coun­cil of Toy In­dus­tries Eth­i­cal Toy Pro­gram, which sets out ex­pected in­dus­try stan­dards in­tended, the body says, to im­prove work­ing con­di­tions in toy fac­to­ries.

The Wah Tung fac­tory is cer­ti­fied by the ETP. Speak­ing on the fac­tory’s be­half, ETP spokesman Mark Robert­son said: “The al­le­ga­tions high­lighted from the CLW re­port con­tra­vene eth­i­cal toy pro­gramme’s own re­quire­ments on work­ing hours, wages, hol­i­day pay and an­nual leave. We will work di­rectly with fac­to­ries to ad­dress any is­sues iden­ti­fied.

“We take the is­sues raised by China La­bor Watch very se­ri­ously and have launched our own in­ves­ti­ga­tion. We will quickly and ef­fec­tively ad­dress any is­sues iden­ti­fied which are in breach of our stan­dards.”

Robert­son said that the ETP had achieved sub­stan­tive progress in rais­ing eth­i­cal con­di­tions at the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s cer­ti­fied fac­to­ries in China and else­where. “Wages have in­creased, fac­tory en­vi­ron­ments are safer and work­ing hours are re­duc­ing; hours worked at toy fac­to­ries in China are lower than those in the ap­parel and elec­tronic sec­tors.”

A spokesman for Dis­ney said the brand was a mem­ber of the eth­i­cal toy pro­gramme’s com­mit­ted brands plus pro­gramme, which it used along­side oth­ers “as part of our re­spon­si­ble sourc­ing ap­proach”.

He re­ferred to a state­ment from ETP in which the coun­cil said it wel­comed “any ro­bust in­ves­ti­ga­tion which in­creases our un­der­stand­ing of work­ing con­di­tions at toy fac­to­ries”.

Mat­tel said it had no cur­rent pro­duc­tion in the fac­to­ries men­tioned in the CLW re­port.

“Mat­tel is com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing ev­ery sin­gle per­son mak­ing our toys and prod­ucts is treated fairly, with re­spect, and is able to work in a safe and healthy en­vi­ron­ment. Our labour stan­dards, en­vi­ron­men­tal, health and safety pro­grammes and over­sight pro­cesses re­flect this com­mit­ment, and we stand be­hind our record of eth­i­cal labour prac­tices and en­vi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship.”

Three other fac­to­ries pro­duc­ing for a large num­ber of in­ter­na­tional brands fea­ture in the full re­port.

* This fig­ure rep­re­sents the to­tal monthly wages of the 36 women on the pro­duc­tion line, work­ing an av­er­age of 26 days a month, di­vided by the to­tal num­ber of dolls pro­ducedeach month

Pho­to­graph: China La­bor Watch

The Wah Tung fac­tory in Heyuan, where staff said they worked 175 hours of over­time in onemonth.

Pho­to­graph: PR

Dis­ney Princess Sing & Sparkle Ariel doll.At the peak of pro­duc­tion, 2,400 of the dollsroll off the Wah Tung pro­duc­tion line daily.

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