by Christina Chiarello
Every second, two Barbies are sold somewhere all over the world. Mattel, based in El Segundo California, reported earnings of $225.3 million dollars; and that was just over a three month period! All over the world, billions of Barbies are being sold to children of all ages every year. Barbie Dolls are one of Mattel's most profitable, successful, and desired products. Each year Mattel spends millions of dollars on commercial advertising. Doug Glen, President of Mattel Media, exclaims that "People over 30 tend to find these commercials annoying, but many kids are able to play back from 60 to 80 percent of these fraction-of-a-second images." Children are Mattel's biggest target. The Barbie Doll is so popular among young children, girls especially, because not only is she beautiful, trendy, and perfect, but she is also considered to be magical because Barbie can do anything and everything. Although the initial sensation of owning your very own Barbie Doll is captivating and fascinating, the path that a Barbie Doll has to travel to reach your hands is every thing but glamorous (Meloan 1-2 ).
For the past 20 years sweatshops have been exploiting workers, especially women and children. At the Barbie factory in Bangkok the workers are required to work 12 hours every day, and are paid only five dollars per day. Most of the workers in the Barbie factories are from suburban or rural areas of Thailand. However, as Thailand is becoming more westernized, the majority of the workers are coming from Bangkok. Bangkok's suburban areas are becoming more modernized. As a result, farmers are selling their land and moving into the growing cities because foreign companies are tricking them into doing so. When these farmers run out of money, they begin to search for other ways to support their families. More times than not, these farmers are forced to find work in the sweatshops. They then send their siblings and children into the urban area as well to work, and hopefully make enough money for the whole family. In suburban areas, working in factories was seen as a good job. However, workers did not realize that these factories would exploit them and their families and ruin their health forever (Teyarajkul 1).
When Anton Foek visited the Dynamics factory in Bangkok, where 4,500 workers, most of which are female, make Barbies as well as other toys, he was appalled at what he saw. Most of the workers were from northeastern Thailand, where there is extreme poverty. In this area, if the girls aren't sold into sexual abusive slavery at 11 or 12, they are sent to work at big city factories to provide a steady income to help support their families. Foek described the conditions of the factory as, "long hours, hard work, low pay, no vacations, no sick days, and no rights. No union and thus no voice." 75% of the workers had respiratory infections that came from inhaling dust. Still others suffered from chronic lead poisoning as a result of working with lead and various chemicals. Workers were allowed to wear a mask; however, they first had to buy it. But with the $4 a day salary, most simply couldn't afford the protection. Foek summed up his experience with the young sweatshop workers as, "They are in a catch-22 situation: if they don't work, their relatives get nothing; if they do work, they get sick from all the chemicals and dust."
While in Bangkok, Foek was also able to visit young women who had worked in the factories, but had since then been subjected to hospitals. One of the women he met with was 20-year-old Sunanta, who used to work in the Dynamics factory. Sunanta said, "When we get sick, they throw us out." Four of Sunanta's friends from the factory have died because they had no health insurance and were unable to afford health care. Sunanta had worked in the factory for no more than a year when she became ill. She has suffered from memory loss, irregularities in her period, hair loss, and difficulties in breathing. Sunanta described the condition of her co-workers as tired and weak. Sunanta herself has never played with a Barbie Doll. The Dynamics workers aren't even allowed to purchase the Barbie Dolls at their regular price, let alone at a discounted rate. Sunanta told Foek that she wants to do something to help her friends and all the sweatshop workers "keep alive the dream of a better life." Unfortunately, Sunanta does not have long to live. Her health problems have left her at a young age depressed and embarrassed, shy and ashamed.
Dr. Orapun, the director of Thailand's National Institute of Occupational and Environmental Health, has been doing research on workers' health in sweatshops. Dr. Orapun discovered that many of the sweatshop workers' blood was contaminated with lead from the paints and the chemicals from the fabric that is used to make Barbie's clothes. As a result, this could lead to cancer of the lungs, leukemia, and cancer of the liver. When Dr. Orapun took her concerns to the first secretary of Thailand's Prime Minister, she was shocked to discover his negligence and lack of sympathy of the situation. The government was concerned that if the Thai workers' union rose against these multinational companies, they would move their factories into other underdeveloped countries. As a result, the country's gross domestic product would decline. Since the Thai economy benefited from these companies, unemployment would rise dramatically and there would be a massive relocation of jobs (Foek 9-14).
In December of 1996, NBC Dateline did a special on child slave labor behind the Mattel label. The investigation revealed that Indonesian girls as young as 13 were sewing Barbie's frilly dresses at one of the factories subcontracted by Mattel. Some of these girls were even working the long, late hours of the night shift. One of the girls interviewed was 14 years old, and had been working in the factory for over a year. Her name was Wasieti, and at the age of 14 she only had a grade-five education. Another 14 year old girl like Wasieti was Ramla, who rode her bike 40 minutes everyday to the factory. She would ride to make her 3:30 pm shift, and ride home alone in the dark at the end of her shift at 11:00 pm.
The story of a young girl who worked at one of Mattel's factories in Kwai Yong, China is both devastating and shocking. Chen Yuying was 15 years old when she began working in the Zhili Toy factory. She worked there for three years, earning seven cents an hour. In order to help pay for her older brother's schooling, Chen would send home what she could of her $26 monthly salary. When the factory caught fire in November 1993, 87 workers were killed, and hundreds, including Chen, were severely injured. The number of people killed and injured might not have been as high if it weren't for the unsafe conditions of the factory. There were no sprinkler systems, fire alarms, fire hoses, or fire escapes, and heavy mesh covered all of the windows. The doors of the factory were locked to prevent workers from escaping or leaving without having met their daily quotas. Yuying is now 24 years old, and considers herself to be a useless cripple. At the prime age of her life, she suffers from burns to her left ear, breasts, hips, back, waist, left arm, and both legs, leaving her paralyzed for several months. Now she depends on crutches to get around, and relies on holding the left one with the two remaining fingers on her left hand. During the past decade, fires and industrial accidents due to the unsafe working environments in sweatshops have killed and injured thousands of workers in countries like China and Thailand (VIDEA 4-9).
For companies like Mattel, low wages, easy labor, low environmental standards, and tax exemptions make Third World production highly profitable. Mattel greatly benefited after eliminating 700 jobs at its factory in Medina, NY in 1995. Since then, it has increased production in counties such as China, Indonesia, Thailand, and Mexico. Companies like Mattel use child slave labor to make its products cheaply. The average American likes to think that we've progressed beyond this sort of thing in our quality of life. However, the truth is that the American style of living is made possible in large part from the existence of sweat shops in other countries. If more American's were aware of the manipulation of children in other countries, and the devastating affects these sweatshops are having on their lives and health, they would want to put a stop to all sweatshop labor over the world. In fact, 75% of US consumers said they would boycott stores that sold goods from sweatshops, if they had only known. Therefore, it is our duty as human beings to educate each other and stop the injustice and cruelty of child slave labor, before it becomes out of control and continues to ruin thousands of innocent lives, who deserve to be treated with fairness, justice and liberty (Sweat Shops 1).