Holiday shopping news

American companies which have farmed out production to China and other low-wage countries often claim they strictly enforce decent standards for wages, benefits and working conditions.

And who knows? Maybe some actually do. But at least one Chinese toymaker– which manufactures Etch A Sketch for the American company Ohio Art– coaches its employees to lie to foreign clients about how good they have it.

After first saying that Kin Ki [the toymaker] strictly abides by all Chinese labor laws, Johnson Tao, a senior executive with the privately owned company, acknowledged that Kin Ki’s wages and benefits fell short of legal levels and vowed to address the issue soon.

He said that the memos might have reflected attempts by factory managers to deceive inspectors, but that such behavior “did not have the support of senior management.”

William C. Killgallon, the chief executive of Ohio Art Company, the owner of Etch A Sketch, said that he considered Kin Ki executives honest and that he had no knowledge of labor problems there. But he said he intended to visit China soon to “make sure they understand what we expect.”

They are, in other words, shocked– shocked!

China now makes 80 percent of the toys sold in America, according to United States government figures, and no industry here has come under greater pressure to adhere to global labor codes. Kin Ki and most other big producers open their doors to foreign inspectors to assuage concerns that products used to entertain children in rich countries are not made under oppressive conditions in poor ones.

But that goal conflicts with price pressures in commodity industries like toys, where manufacturers command no premium for good labor practices. China alone has 8,000 toy makers competing fiercely for contracts by shaving pennies off production costs.

Kin Ki stays competitive, workers say, by paying them 24 cents an hour in Shenzhen, where the legal minimum wage is 33 cents. When the Etch A Sketch line shut down in Ohio just after the Christmas rush in 2000, wages for the unionized work force there had reached $9 an hour.

Chinese workers say the company also denies them legally required nonsalary benefits and compels them to work 84 hours a week, far more than the legal maximum, without required overtime pay.

“I keep this job because my parents and my daughter depend on the money I earn,” said one migrant worker, who if named could lose her position for talking about the company. “No one likes to work in these conditions, but I have no choice.”

Happy holidays.