dangerous products the wages of globalization

Last week Thomas Debrowski, executive vice president of Mattel toy company, issued an apology to China over the recent recall of more than 20 million…

Last week Thomas Debrowski, executive vice president of Mattel toy company, issued an apology to China over the recent recall of more than 20 million toys.

About 17 million of the Mattel products had detachable magnets that a child could swallow, and the rest were contaminated with lead.

According to a story in Friday’s Globe and Mail, the Mattel apology stems from a Chinese complaint that “foreign media and others (are) playing up its product safety issues as a form of protectionism.”

It seems that the detachable magnets were a design flaw, and no fault of the manufacturer, and since these were by far the bulk of the recall, the Chinese government didn’t appreciate the two being lumped together.

This is no small matter in China, where the economy is built on exports of manufactured goods, and billions of dollars in trade stand at risk when there’s  a scandal about the safety of the products. One plant manager committed suicide when the Mattel toys were recalled.

It’s not a small matter in North America either. According to Health Canada’s web page, “Young children … absorb lead more easily than adults and are more susceptible to its harmful effects. Even low level exposure may harm the intellectual development, behaviour, size and hearing of infants.”

Debrowski’s apology to the Chinese, delivered in the presence of a roomful of lawyers and dignitaries and in front of the TV cameras, made no mention of the lead paint problem, though the previous week Mattel CEO Robert Eckert told a Congressional panel on product safety, “Our standards were ignored and our rules were broken.”

This year, 85 per cent of the toys on the European Union’s dangerous consumer goods report came from China.

Recently the Chinese government admitted that a company in Jiangsu Province had added melamine, a toxic chemical used in plastics and fertilizer, to rice protein concentrate and wheat gluten for export to Canada and the US, for use in pet food and livestock feed. Dogs and cats died, and some hogs were found to be contaminated.

The Mattel apology has sparked outrage in the US, where senators are calling for China to apologize to the American people for manufacturing dangerous products.

But all of this ignores the obvious truth at the heart of the problem. Slack regulations are not a flaw in globalization: they are its purpose.

American and Canadian companies move their manufacturing to China to escape their own countries’ labour laws, environmental standards, health and safety regulations, and taxes. It’s cheaper to produce goods in an environment where the standards are slack and enforcement even slacker.

China Labour Watch, a US-based rights group, issued a report last month describing conditions in Chinese factories as “brutal,” and saying that “Wages are low, benefits are non-existent, work environments are dangerous and living conditions are humiliating.”

It makes you look at Barbie in a whole new way when you know the people who make her are forced to work 18 hour days, seven days a week in peak season, sometimes losing a whole week’s pay in “fines” for small misdemeanours.

Many are young women, and though the law prohibits it, many of those are under 16. There have been numerous reports of sexual exploitation among young women in Chinese factories.

When our children are exposed to low levels of lead, factory workers are exposed to higher levels. According to Heath Canada, “During pregnancy, especially in the last trimester, lead can cross the placenta and affect the unborn child. Female workers exposed to high levels of lead have more miscarriages and stillbirths.”

The report found that in China’s toy factories, there is no such thing as maternity benefits, or maternity leave. Pregnant women and girls keep working abusively long hours in unventilated holes.

Once upon a time there was an intercontinental trade in agricultural products such as coffee, cotton, sugar, and tobacco. Its workers were forced migrants who lived in abject conditions and suffered terrible abuses. It made fortunes for a few and brought a degree of prosperity to many.

It finally came to be seen for what it was, an evil traffic in human misery with no higher purpose than to feed the fads of Europe. But by that time the slave economy had become so entrenched that to break it took the deadliest war in history to that point.

If wealthy nations took human rights and public safety seriously, we could effect change without cataclysm.

We could have real rules, with teeth, governing foreign trade, rules that mean workers producing goods to sell here get a decent living wage and decent working conditions, that those goods don’t threaten our health, that those countries have and enforce real environmental standards.

If a concern for public safety is protectionist, as China says, why is protectionist a dirty word? What else is democracy for but protecting the public good from the excesses of wealth and power?

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.