It is easy to sit back in our comfortable little country where most people eat a hot meal every day and sleep in a warm bed every night, we all have the right to participate in the election of our leaders and exercise our free will as consumers and purchase whatever we want, whenever we want, within reason.
Few of us spare a thought for the people making the products that we consume so avidly or, more importantly in the toy industry’s case, the products that we sell. Of course, that is a gross generalisation. We do care about unfair practices and human rights violations, but only the few actually do anything to stop them.
Eric Clark’s book, The Real Toy Story, talked enthusiastically about the business of toys – he freely admits that he found the industry fascinating – but his analysis of this vibrant industry didn’t blanch from confronting the uncomfortable truth about working conditions in the factories that produce the vast majority of the world’s toys.
His statistics made for stark reading: “About 80 per cent of the world’s toys are now made in China ... about 8,000 toy factories, employing three million workers ... conditions can be an affront to a civilised world ... workers toiling up to 100 hours a week, sometimes weeks without a day off, crammed into dark, drab dormitories, enduring dangerous conditions with no health care, pay below even the low legal minimum, bullied and fined for minor ‘infringements’ like needing to spend more than five minutes in the lavatory or chatting or joking…”
Although people may scoff, the toy industry is trying to do something about it. The International Council of Toy Industries (ICTI) was formed in 1974, first adopting a Code of Business Practices in 1995 and The ICTI CARE Process has been touted as the next step in promoting fair labour practice in toy production.
It sets the standards and evaluates whether or not toy factories comply with them via an independent audited process.
Whether it goes far enough is the question and Clark pulls no punches when he says that, with a few notable exceptions, most notably Hasbro’s Alan Hassenfeld, the toy industry executives with whom he discussed China showed infinitely more interest in the problem of knockoffs and complained to him that the industry was ‘an easy target’ – the implication being that it was unfair.
Hassenfeld is co-chair of the Governance Board of the ICTI CARE Foundation and, given his long standing familial interest in the toy industry and history of philanthropy, it is only to be expected that he would have something to say about Clark’s book.
It is difficult to talk to Hassenfeld without him referring to this industry’s responsibility towards its consumers. He doesn’t directly quote the words of the philosopher W Houston by saying he believes ‘the children are our future’, but the sentiment is never far from the surface.
“Sometimes we are too close to the trees,” says Hassenfeld about the toy industry’s knee jerk defensiveness of itself and he adds that, “We need people like Eric (Clark).”
While not disagreeing with the basic premise of the book, he thinks the message is “finally getting out there,” and having major retailers like Wal Mart and Carrefour sign up to the ICTI Care process is a major step in the right direction.
There are now 4,000 good for export factories in China and 550 ICTI certificates have been granted for 940 factories employing over one million workers.
“If you want to be a member of the TIA you now have to sign a letter agreeing to the ICTI process,” he adds “but we are only two years-old. We are a baby and we are crawling. Don’t shoot us before we can walk.”
Hassenfeld is all too aware that this is a lifelong commitment to the betterment of standards. “Every day we have got to improve. We have to educate factory workers, owners, auditors, etc.” He gives an example of the need for constant vigilance when he recalls the printing of a wall chart hanging factory that was in English when workers spoke Mandarin.
It was SACOM (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour) which spotted this and it was subsequently changed. ICTI is a firm believer in helping factories to change and become better rather than just cutting them off.
“It is important to us that we in the West do not have the right to preach to another culture. Uplifting the worker is something we believe in.” He says it is better that we in the industry make it better and work with factories rather than be told what to do.
ICTI wants one world, one code and the World Bank is interested in their work. “We are at the vanguard of work like this,” says Hassenfeld and adds that it is “really important that we get the retailers to sign off on our code” although he thinks that less than ten per cent of buyers have probably ever been in the factories that make the toys that they sell. Similarly, he doubts that every CEO of suppliers has done the same.
The whole debate has now reached the highest political level. Witness the US Senate sweatshop hearings and the debate can only intensify.
“It is our job in this industry to make a difference,” finishes Hassenfeld before adding tellingly, “who wants a toy that is made with blood, sweat and tears?"