Harsh conditions contribute to toy recalls, labor advocates tell Senate


By Jesse J. Holland, AP

WASHINGTON — Recalls of millions of unsafe toys may be part of the price of Americans buying products manufactured in China under sweatshop conditions or by forced prison labor, worker advocates told a Senate panel.

“When production is outsourced to Chinese factories infamous for paying their workers pennies an hour, dumping toxic sludge into the environment and for covering up all kinds of health hazards, it should come as no shock that the products turned out by those factories pose a danger to our own health,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat.

Dorgan is pushing legislation that would ban the import of products made in sweatshop conditions, a position endorsed Thursday in a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing by labor advocates who say working conditions in some Chinese toy factories are deplorable.

“Toxic and sweatshop toys are two sides of the same coin, and need to be regulated by enforceable laws,” said Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry referred questions to other government ministries. Phones in the press office of the Ministry of Commerce rang unanswered Friday morning. The Associated Press sent a fax requesting comment.

More than 21 million toys made in China — from Baby Einstein Discover & Play Color Blocks from Kids II Inc., to Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway by RC2 Corp. — have been recalled because of excessive levels of lead paint, tiny magnets that could be swallowed or other potentially serious problems.

Lead is toxic if ingested by young children.

Mattel Inc. recalled an additional 38,000 “Go Diego Go!” toys Thursday as part of a larger recall of 665,000 lead contaminated children’s products made in China. Thursday’s recall involved 38,000 orange and yellow Go Diego Go! Animal Rescue Boats, manufactured in China and imported by Fisher-Price.

Surface paint on the boats contain excessive levels of lead.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission also announced Thursday recalls of 627,000 other Chinese-made toys that are contaminated with lead.

Workers at the approximately 8,000 Chinese toy factories are not given safety equipment to use while making American toys, said Bama Athreya, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum.

They also suffer through physical, verbal and sexual harassment, often are overworked and cheated out of their wages and rarely have medical insurance or pensions, she said.

In addition, forced prison labor is also used to make toys for export, said Harry Wu, executive director of the Laogai Research Foundation and a human rights activist who spent 19 years in Chinese prison camps.

“According to our research, there are 11 prisons that produce toys for domestic and international markets in provinces across China, and there are likely many more,” Wu said.

Toy companies are working to try to make conditions better for Chinese workers, said Peter Eio, former chairman of the LEGO toy company and member of the governance board of the International Council of Toy Industries CARE Foundation.

“We are well advanced, but recognize there is a great deal still to be done,” Eio said.