Sources: THE NATION, Title: “Barbie’s Betrayal: The Toy Industry’s Broken Workers,” Date: December 30, 1996, Author. Eyal Press; THE HUMANIST, Title: “Sweatshop Barbie: Exploitation of Third World Labor,” Date: January/February 1997, Author: Anton Foek
SSU Censored Researcher. Erika Nell
SSU Staff Evaluator. Carol Tremmel
Thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), U.S. toy factories have cut a onetime American work force of 56,000 in half and sent many of those jobs to countries where workers lack basic rights.
For 23 years, Dennis Mears worked as an electrician at the Fisher-Price factory in Medina, New York. In 1993, Mattel, Inc. took over the plant, welcoming the people of Fisher-Price to the Mattel family. Two years later, after Mattel had lobbied for NAFTA, touting the agreement as a boon for U.S. workers, Mears and 700 other employees, including his wife, an employee of 18 years, lost their jobs. Some of the jobs moved to the South, but 520 disappeared because of “increased company imports from Mexico,” according to the U.S. Labor Department. Today, Mears works in an applesauce factory, earning half of what he made at Fisher-Price.
In the past decade, Mattel, the makers of “Barbie,” bought out six major competitors, making it the largest toy manufacturer in the world. Employing 25,000 people worldwide, Mattel now only employs 6,000 workers in the United States. NAFTA has freed Mattel to further reduce its American work force and take advantage of repressive labor laws in other countries.
Delfina Rodriguez is a middle-aged woman with seven children. Until September 9, 1996, she assembled Mattel toys on the night shift at the Mabamex factory, a Mattel affiliate in Tijuana, Mexico. On that night, she reports, she came to work carrying pamphlets from a workers’ rights meeting held the previous day.
Upon entering the plant she says her purse was searched and she was taken into a room by a security guard. She and two other workers say they were interrogated, accused of passing out subversive materials, detained against their will until the next morning, and prevented from going to the bathroom or making phone calls to their families. In the end, they were told they would have to quit their jobs or go to prison. They were released only after agreeing to resign. Although they have reached a settlement with the company awarding them severance pay, the women have filed a penal complaint in Tijuana, claiming their rights were violated.
In the Dynamic factory just outside of Bangkok, 4,500 women and children stuff, cut, dress, and assemble Barbie dolls and Disney properties. Many of the workers have respiratory infections, their lungs filled with dust from fabrics in the factory. They complain of hair and memory loss, constant pain in their hands, neck, and shoulders, episodes of vomiting, and irregular menstrual periods. Metha is a militant woman in her twenties who tried to start a union at the Dynamics plant. She claims the company not only fired her but threatened to shut her up “forever.” She developed respiratory problems and was hospitalized. She expresses her fear to talk to a reporter by saying, “Barbie is powerful. Three friends have already died. If they kill me, who will ever know I lived?”
Though separated by distance, these Mattel workers are intimately connected by experience, as are those of countless other abused workers in toy factories in Thailand and China, where Mattel now produces the bulk of their toys.
Under pressure, the industry adopted a code of conduct, which conveniently calls upon companies to monitor themselves. There’s little evidence, however, according to authors Anton Foek and Eyal Press, of any changes in these abusive practices.
UPDATE BY AUTHOR EYAL PRESS: “A few years ago, questions about conditions in the toy industry began to be raised in the media after a fire killed more than 100 workers, mostly young women, at a factory in Thailand. Since that time, little has been done to address the unsafe and inhumane working conditions that predominate in the industry; and the media’s attention has, predictably, focused on the craze for ‘Elmo’ dolls, the latest version of Barbie, and to the intense jostling among companies for profit and market share. The fact that so many toys are made in sweatshops is simply not a pleasant topic to dwell upon, so while it’s mentioned in occasional news stories, most consumers remain uninformed and oblivious.
“My article gave a detailed, first-hand account of a previously unreported case of worker harassment and intimidation at a Mattel toy factory in Mexico. I connected this story to related events in a town in upstate New York, where, earlier in the same year, Mattel had laid off hundreds of workers, shifting production to Mexico. The strength of the story, I think, rested in the first-hand interviews I conducted with workers in both places. The article also provided a detailed look at how Mattel and other toy companies have lobbied Congress to ensure that U.S. tariff and trade agreements be separated from the question of labor rights. In the fine print of trade agreements with China and Indonesia, the industry has won special privileges eliminating all tariffs on toy imports, and it has blocked attempts to tie these privileges to improvements in labor rights.
“The short-term response to my story was positive: I was invited to speak on numerous radio shows across the country, both commercial and public. There have also been several good stories done on conditions in the toy industry in the past year—including a program that aired on NBC Dateline. Nevertheless, the issues addressed in my article have not received sustained attention. In addition, I know for a fact that an award-winning reporter at a mainstream newspaper had a lengthy feature story on abuses in the toy industry killed by his editors just around the time that my story appeared. He was enraged, suspecting that his editors (and no doubt the paper’s advertisers) simply did not want such a story to appear during the holiday shopping season. Given that the United States is by far the world’s largest market for toys and that the industry’s abuses could easily be curtailed without threatening its financial well-being, it’s impossible to believe that consumers would prefer that such stories be relegated to the back pages.”
UPDATE BY AUTHOR ANTON FOEK: “In the year since my story was published, at least one of the women I wrote about died. And unsafe sweatshop conditions continue in Bangkok, Thailand, as elsewhere. A positive change, however, is that the sort of conditions I reported in ‘Sweatshop Barbie,’ have since garnered widespread concern, receiving publicity in U.S. News and World Report, on NBC Dateline, and in other media. As a result, companies like Mattel have publicly responded. The July/August 1997 Humanist featured a letter written by Sean M. Fitzgerald, Vice-President of Corporate Communications for Mattel, Inc., followed by my reply. In his letter, Fitzgerald denied or minimized what I had personally observed, photographed, and tape-recorded. But, after standing by my story, I expressed the idea that we should look beyond the toys of Mattel to the forest of the corporate world as a whole, seeing how the goal of amassing private fortunes can work at cross-purposes with the goal of extending participatory democracy.
“Though I haven’t heard that my reply changed Fitzgerald’s mind, I consider the corporate response sufficient. It shows that journalistic efforts can have impact. But we must do more. Consumers should write letters and send e-mail to major corporations whose products carry labels indicating manufacture in developing nations, and ask about working conditions there. Further, consumer groups should be encouraged to rate products according to working conditions as well as safety. To know how best to vote with your dollars, contact The Council on Economic Priorities at 30 Irving Place, New York, NY 10001; Tel: 800/729-4237.”