It’s fun to tell our children fun stories about Santa and his elves merrily making all their Christmas wishes magically come true. But in 2017, maybe it’s time we tell them the real story — the story many grown-ups don’t even know, because they prefer to remain willfully ignorant.
Santa’s workshop is not at the North Pole. It’s in China. And his elves are desperately poor migrant workers, whose repressive government has given them no choice but to sell themselves into indentured servitude to corporations that make cheap, plastic goodies for European and American children.
They work literally around the clock in sweltering heat and toxic fumes, performing the same repetitive, monotonous task for 14 to 20 hours straight. If they are lucky enough to make it “home” to their factory dormatories, where they are packed in 12-20 workers per room, they might catch a couple of hours of sleep before they do it all over again the next day, seven days a week.
If you think this is an exaggeration, watch the videos below.
The first is a news story about a little town in China called Yiwu where 60 percent of the world’s Christmas decorations are made in 700 factories.
The U.S. imported half a billion dollars worth of Christmas decorations from Yiwu in 2015.
It’s such an important exporter of cheap products to Europe, China opened an 8000 mile rail-line from Yiwu to Spain.
While this story is depressing enough, Chinese Christmas decorations are only the tip of the iceberg.
Globally, consumers spend nearly $100 billion on toys each year, most of them for Christmas. 80% of these toys come from thousands of factories in China, mostly from a city outside of Hong Kong called Shenzhen.
In the documentary Santa’s Workshop below, the non-profit human rights and environmental organization Swedwatch exposes the little white lie behind those pretty packages under the tree:
Several Scandinavian toy companies gave the filmmakers permission to visit select factories.
In covert interviews, workers making dolls and stuffed animals for Disney claim to work seven days a week from 6:30 am to midnight. During peak holiday preparation season, during the heat of the summer, workers say they sometimes work until 4 am.
In another factory that makes toy cars, filmmakers said the air was “stifling and it was difficult to breathe.”
When asked why more than 90 percent of the workers were female, factory manager Tai Guang Lai told filmmakers “women are easier to manage.”
The filmmakers found workers hands and arms scarred from cuts and burns from hot plastic molds. They watched women fall asleep on their work tables and faint when they stood up for lunch break.
Asked about why they were fainting, one manager said a lot of them skip breakfast to save money, but that it was “no big deal” … “they recover quickly.”
Factory managers and toy company representatives insisted that workers “want” to work overtime, so they can make extra money.
But workers interviewed in secret told a different story. They say they are not guaranteed a minimum wage and are paid according to how fast they work. They say their pay is so low, they couldn’t survive without overtime.
While the factories all present acceptable stats about pay, overtime and working conditions to buyers, the filmmakers say both sides are aware it’s a farce. When toy companies inspect factories, workers say they are paid extra to give acceptable answers to questions and that unacceptable answers result in punishment.
An investigation by Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee shows 7 out of 9 suppliers cheat in this way to make it appear they comply with national labor laws.
Factory managers say toy companies make impossible demands — pay your employees well, but keep your prices low … don’t require too much overtime, ship this to us in 30 days.
Toy companies blame consumers for being unwilling to pay more for their products.
“When we were manufacturing in Sweden, customers were not willing to pay the extra cost,” Tomas Person, managing director of Brio, said in the film.
So prices are kept low at the expense of the workers.
Why don’t the workers complain? Because China is not a democracy. Protests are crushed by the military and workers who try to organize unions are arrested.
Because of their enormous population combines with repressive trade union laws, the commoners of China are ripe for exploitation.
Its not only factory workers who pay the high cost of cheap toys, but everyone who lives in the area. The toy factories dump untreated waste including chromium, lead, mercury, phosphorus and ammonia into the surrounding environment.
Mercury levels in the water and fish around factories are 280 times higher than national requirements. Locals downstream use the water for drinking and irrigation, saying its the only water they have.
So maybe next year, we can make our own gifts, buy local, or at least buy “fair-trade” toys. Maybe if we didn’t buy 10 or 20 plastic toys that will end up in a landfill, we could afford to buy one or two high-quality ones like these fairly traded finger puppets from Peru: