This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
WASHINGTON - Congressional leaders have repeatedly lashed out at U.S. companies for importing "toxic toys" from China containing hazardous levels of lead and chemicals.
But a Senate subcommittee Thursday took a different tack, turning the recall controversy around to focus on the people in China who dwell in sweatshops and forced-labor camps making those toys for American companies.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., called the hearing to support a bill he has proposed outlawing any import made with sweatshop labor.
"That is profiting from the misery of others," he told the crowd.
At least one witness said major toy companies and retailers are banking on China's lack of labor protections to make big profits.
"Wal-Mart and the world's major toy brands and retailers are not producing in China despite the lack of meaningful product or worker safety regulation - they are there precisely because of it," said Bama Athreya, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum.
Athreya has toured Chinese toy factors and seen how workers are treated. Most are never told they are working with toxins or how to protect themselves. Many are forced to work overtime, but are not paid properly for it. If they complain, they are fired.
More than three-fourths of the world's toys are made in about 8,000 south China factories, and those who testified Thursday said just about all of these factories skirt the nation's labor laws.
Charles Kernaghan, the director of the National Labor Committee, told Dorgan about factories with forced 70-hour work weeks, where overtime wages are withheld. Workers sleep in "primitive dorms," with a dozen people in each room on metal bunk beds. They have substandard food, no hot water and take home 46 cents an hour.
Kernaghan held up a Barbie produced under these conditions. The labor cost the factory 19 cents. The U.S. company paid $9 to ship it here and then charged the consumer $30 for the doll.
"There is enough money here to make toys safe and to treat the workers in China with dignity and respect," he said.
But corporations acting through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have actually lobbied China against improving labor laws, fearing such a move could drive up costs.
Dorgan and those who testified drew further examples of substandard working conditions from investigative media reports, including a series of stories on rampant workplace poisonings and amputations that ran this week in The Salt Lake Tribune.
Harry Wu, who spent 19 years of his life in a forced labor camp, held up The Tribune series as only the latest exploration of Chinese workplace problems.
Dorgan asked Mattel executives to participate in the hearing, but they declined.
The only person representing the toy industry was Peter Eio, a former Lego executive who is now on the governing board of a trade organization that is trying to rein in workplace abuses.
Eio said the International Council of Toy Industries has created a global "code of business practices" and has conducted its own inspections of factories. The group counts Hasbro, Mattel and other major toy companies as members. The effort is a fledgling one. So far only 670 of the 8,000 factories have signed up.