Why a cuddly Christmas present can be a matter of life and death

Stephen Vines reports on Hong Kong-owned toy factories in China which routinely flout health and safety laws
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Yuying, a 22-year-old former hand-sewer of toys from China's Sichuan province, did not make any Teletubbies to fill children's Christmas stockings this year. In fact she made nothing at all, because she can barely walk, her left hand has only two fingers left and she is intensively scarred over most of her body as a result of burns.

Yuying was one victim of the terrible inferno that engulfed the Zhili toy factory four years ago. Eighty-seven people died; 46 others were injured. Many could have been saved if exits had not been blocked and windows barred.

It later emerged that the factory's fire-safety standard certificate had been obtained for a pounds 240 bribe.

The Zhili factory was making toys for the leading Italian toy company, Chicco. It was not very different from any of the thousands of small and medium-sized toy factories that produce some seven out of every 10 toys imported into Europe.

Most of the factories are clustered in the Pearl River delta area near Hong Kong. Chan Ka-wai, the associate director of the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, has been working with the Hong Kong companies that own most of these factories. Although the Zhili fire sent shockwaves through the toy industry, he says that not much has been done to improve health and safety conditions.

In 1994 China passed its first labour law, which contains a raft of health and safety measures, but "the big problem is enforcement", says Mr Chan.

Subsequent legislation established a sophisticated labelling system for chemicals commonly used in toy production, but "this is just a piece of paper, it is seldom enforced. If you go to a factory you will find that the workers don't know how to handle these chemicals properly".

Mr Chan's impression is confirmed in a report by the Hong Kong-based Asia Monitor Resource Centre, which visited 10 Hong Kong-owned toy factories in southern China and found that they all were lax in health and safety measures and that their employees had little knowledge about the hazardous environment in which they were working.

Part of the problem is that factories operate on a "three in one" basis, meaning that single buildings serve as a factory, warehouse and workers' dormitory. This means that employees are exposed to risks 24 hours a day and that the separation between work and living areas is inadequate to prevent accidents.

The work is labour-intensive and requires nimble employees with good eyesight. Most of the workforce is female, aged between 17 and 23: "At 23 they are considered very old," says Mr Chan. Some, such as Yuying, lie about their age and begin work at 15, although the minimum full-time employment age is supposed to be 17.

Despite the risks and poor conditions, the factories attract millions of young women seeking to escape even worse poverty in villages in China's inland provinces. There they are treated as inferior and condemned to a life of considerable drudgery; in the toy factories, by contrast, they can earn what seem to them very good rewards. On average they are paid about pounds 40 a month, well above the statutory minimum wage. Accommodation is free and they return home as important breadwinners with enhanced status.

The toy factory women, however, rarely work the five-day week of eight hours per day laid down in national labour laws. Most work 12 hours a day, with just two rest days a month. This should entitle them to high overtime earnings, but in practice these are rarely paid.

There is also a more sinister side to toy-making in China: Harry Wu, the US-based former Chinese political prisoner, alleges that much of the output comes from forced labour in prison camps, or laogai. Mr Wu is calling for a boycott of Chinese-made toys, but Hong Kong-based labour activists such as Mr Chan say that it would be better if a labelling system could be developed to certify that toys are produced in fair and safe conditions.