As shoppers gear up for the busy Christmas season, German toy companies are promising better conditions for the many Chinese workers who produce the toys that end up under the tree. A "social seal" is meant to help.
Almost every second toy is produced in China
The Christmas shopping rush is just around the corner. It's the biggest time of the year for toy sales, but what many German consumers don't realize is that even well known brand names such as Ravensburger or doll-maker Zapf produce their toys in far away factories.
Almost every second German toy comes from China, the new giant on the international toy market. In the past year alone, China exported €5.8 billion ($7.5 billion) worth of toys.
In a long storage hall on the edge of the industrial metropolis Shenzhen, Chinese laborers are working away for a holiday they don't even celebrate. The toys they produce need to arrive in Germany in time for December's brisk Christmas sales.
Klaus Piepel from the Catholic aid agency Misereor recently paid a visit to the Chinese workers in Shenzhen.
"They were complaining of extremely long working times during the peak season, which is the pre-Christmas period in Europe. They work seven days a week with no days off. They work up to 90 or 100 hours a week," Piepel said.
He's also concerned about the low wages the workers receive for their hard work. The toy industry is one of the worst paid, with the legal minimum wage amounting to around €50 per week, though some employers pay less.
"Death by overwork"
Most of the workers in Shenzhen sleep on site in overfilled rooms, surrounded by the poisonous fumes from paints and glues they use in their work. Death is not unheard of -- "death by overwork" is how the Chinese term translates. The situation is allowed to persist, despite the fact that China has detailed labor laws that lay down working hours, wages, and health and safety standards.
Chinese officials seldom enforce the labor laws. Within the country, regions compete with each other for foreign investment and subsidiaries, and the sense is that it wouldn't do to place too many restrictions on foreign companies, said Piepel. In his work with Misereor, he instead appeals to the companies that do business in China, including Germany's toy makers.
Despite some progress, one problem remains. In Germany, where consumers are about to spend a lot of money on toys, people have heard relatively little about the exploitation of Chinese workers in this market sector.
Spreading the word
That's why Misereor has called for an official product seal that should be placed on the products of all the toy makers who've signed the code of ethics, and passed their inspections. Misereor hopes the so-called "social seal" will eventually become as recognizable as the "Blue Angel," a product label that designates items which are especially environment-friendly.
Following several years of effort, Misereor has finally gotten around 40 of Germany's biggest toy producers to sign a voluntary code of ethics. In future, they should only allow their products to be manufactured at factories that live up to certain standards. Companies that refuse to abide by the code can expect a visit from independent inspectors, Piepel said.
"There are professionals who go into the factories and check the wage records, talk to the workers to find out how long they're working, look at what health and safety precautions are in place, and go through a long list of questions," he said.