Assignment 3: ‘Made in China’

It has been said that Europe spends almost 12,630 Billion pounds a year on games and toys alone. Manufacturers have swarmed to China, which apparently assembles a massive 75-80% of the world’s toy production. China has 8,000 toy factories and more than 5,000 of them are in the Guangdong province and it has been said by USA Today in December 2006, that “some 1.5 million workers are making toys in Guangdong”.

With these figures in mind, I set about unpacking some of my and my family’s childhood belongings, searching amongst the boxes of stuffed toys, plastic gimmicks and even some more modern items and found that the majority of them were made in China. In fact the only two items I did find that did not carry the ‘made in china’ label was a stuffed toy, made in Vietnam, and a pack of collecting cards made in USA. The rest, including a rather large number of stuffed toys, cheap novelty products bought as joke presents and other items were all labelled ‘made in china’. I also asked a friend of mine to do the same and the results were very similar.

I was still unsure about these statistics. So I thought when studying the toy industry where else better to go than ‘Toys R Us’? Of course this visit was purely for research purposes… There I did the same thing, and investigated just how much of the company’s stock carried the ‘made in china’ label. As soon as entering the front door you are greeted with an abundance of Lego games and stuffed toys. Lego it seems is made in many places including Denmark and Mexico but many parts are still also made in China. In the stuffed toy section, while rummaging through the selection despite strange looks from both customers and staff, I found that the entire section seemed to be ‘made in China’.
As it turns out the rest of my trip around the store went in a similar fashion. ‘Made in China’, ‘Manufactured in China’, ‘Fabricado en China’ and many other variations of this made it apparent (after much scrutinising of the fine print) that most of the stock and merchandise all shared this similarity. In fact, by the end I was almost praying that I would find even some products that weren’t made in china. Although there were some toys, like the ever-popular ‘Barbie’, some ‘Disney Products’ and some ‘transformers’ toys that despite predominantly being been made in china, they also had some models that were manufactured in Vietnam. As a matter of fact the only toys I could find that appeared not to be ‘made in China’ were the products of Playmobil which is said to be manufactured in Germany, and some board games. The rest of the products I found however, definitely were ‘made in China’.

While there, I asked some shoppers some questions about the products they were buying and generally to consider general products they had at home. I asked them, without checking, if they could guess where some of the products they were about to purchase and also in their opinion, where most of the products they already own were made. Most people guessed China; however some other common answers were other Asian countries, Turkey and India. The next question involved the person recalling their favourite toys from their youth. Many I could recall were probably made in China; however, many after investigating were not. Some such as ‘a sheep skin teddy bear’ was made in Scotland. It seemed that the younger the person interviewed the more likely the chances their favourite toy was manufactured in China showing the over-all shift in manufacturing industries from more local areas, to overseas. This reminds us that it wasn’t so long ago, that factories lined our very own cities. Opinions on the quality of goods made outside the UK varied quite largely. Many or even most however, felt that the quality was good or had improved over the years. There were a number however, that felt that the quality was not good and was worsening. Yet, this could probably be a result of the present financial situation with tighter budgets for buyers; manufacturers have no choice but to lower quality in order to keep up with buyer’s low price demands. Perhaps this is why a number of interviewees felt that product quality, in some aspects at least, was decreasing. However, the majority stood with a rather high quality from products made outside the UK and in particular China.
For the next question I asked why they felt that the importation of Chinese goods into Europe and the U.S was so high. Almost all agreed that it was cheap labour costs and many added that it was also the larger workforces that allow for shorter manufacturing times. However, these similarities in opinion soon vanished when I asked what they thought of the working conditions these people were under and how they felt about them. The words ‘slave-labour’ and ‘poor conditions’ were thrown around a lot. However many argued they were under the impression that conditions had changed or presumed they worked within decent ethical codes and laws. The mere comprehension that such a powerful country could still be subject to slave labour seemed unrealistic. Whereas other interviewees felt the opposite, that for things to be so cheap there had to be a certain amount of this behind the scenes. In fact, according to an investigation carried out by the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, 7 out of every 9 companies, will break Chinese laws and breach the ethical codes set by buyers to the rights of their workers. It is said they have fake wage and hour slips, and pay their staff to lie during inspections. Staff are said to fear defending their human rights in case they lose their jobs.According to Tai Guang Lai, a manager of a toy factory in China that many of the workers are from poor provinces, so they ‘have no choice but to come here and work ‘. The workers, in the words of an American Industrial Designer who works in China himself said, ‘People are the most adaptable machines’ and it appears as though they are being treated in this way. I ended with a simple question, if it meant improving the working conditions of these people, would you be willing to pay more for the toys and all products in general? Again, the answers I received differed from person to person. It’s all circumstantial, to the person. Many said ‘If I had the money, I would’ and ‘In an ideal world’. The harsh reality is that whether the person said they would or would not pay more hypothetically means nothing. A lot of the problems that can be seen are down to the ignorance and naivety of the rest of the world. However, it seems most people I asked were in some manner, aware of how some of their products were ‘probably’ produced. So one can’t help wonder if this ‘ignorance’ is intentional. That perhaps people prefer to close their eyes and pretend the world’s a better place because, let’s be honest, isn’t playing ignorant so much easier than actually doing something about it?

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