Barbie bites back By William Bowles

Mattel’s double whammy

The toy company, Mattel has had to recall 18 million of its products (2 million of them in the UK), all manufactured in China, for various health and safety safety reasons including high levels of lead in the paint and magnets that come off.

Coincidentally, the New York Times ran a puff piece on Mattel, ‘Toymaking in China, Mattel’s Way’ on 26 Jul 2007[1]. In it they informed (the largely uninformed) reader that:

“[I]ndependent analysts, and even watchdog groups, say Mattel may be the best role model for how to operate prudently in China… Mattel, and many of the outside analysts, say the key is command and control”

“Command and control” eh. Bad timing by the NYT but then the “paper of record” is not well known for getting its facts straight or, apparently, on time.

And not unconnected, earlier this year the International Center for Corporate Accountability (ICCA) issued a report praising Mattel for its plants in China. It said in part:

“Mattel is the first and only global consumer products company to apply a required standards system to both its own manufacturing facilities and those of its major vendors, and to independently monitor and publicly disclose the results. It is our desire that more companies adopt and uphold such standards in their manufacturing facilities worldwide, as it is an extremely important initiative that can benefit workers everywhere.”[2]

A report that has come back to haunt Mattel and the NYT (See Note 2 below upon which much of the NYT piece is obviously based.)

Mattel Inc. Revenue
$5.179 billion USD (2005)
Operating income
$664.529 million USD (2005)
Net income
$417.019 million USD (2005)
26,000 (2005)

Mattel is the biggest toy company on the planet with the Barbie doll making up 80% of its profits. Mattel also owns Fisher-Price and a number of other toy ‘manufacturers’.[3]

There’s a terrible irony involved here that needs to be explained and one which goes to the very heart of how capitalism maintains itself at the expense of all workers regardless of where they are.

The move to cheap labour markets goes back to the 1970s when corporations, in order to maintain their level of profits started to move production to wherever the costs were the lowest starting with the tax-free havens in Mexico (maquiladoras) and elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean (eg Haiti). Not only did they export production, they also exported the toxic by-products of the production.[4]

These so-called special economic zones were set-up in countries where labour and environmental laws were all but non-existent, employing what often amounts to indentured as well as non-unionised, female labour. Often locked into the plants, working long hours in hazardous conditions and paid wages a tiny fraction of those paid in the developed world.[5]

The corporations argue that these workers not only have jobs but are paid wages far in excess of their national average but what is not said is that the products are sold in the developed world at developed world prices, thus the comparisons are without merit.

The net result is the de-industrialisation of the industrial countries and the subsequent transformation of these formerly manufacturing companies into nothing more than marketing and distribution entities. The result has also been devastating for workers of the industrialised countries, driving down wages and standards of living to their pre-1970s levels.

Barbie Bites Back
All fine and good, chains like Wal-Mart are making a fortune out of the process, screwing not only workers in countries like China but also their own employees.[6]

Under such conditions, sooner or later, the drive to maximise profits leads to the Mattel fiasco with workers in the developed world now paying twice over, or rather their children are.

What should also be pointed out is that the decades-long struggle to improve the working conditions in the industrial countries that resulted in strict laws governing environmental pollution have been bypassed, a process not unconnected to the virtual demise of the organised labour movement under the impact of the so-called liberalisation process.

However the impact of climate change has thrown the process into sharp relief, revealing the direct connection between global warming and the drive to maintain profits even if it means threatening the health of our children.

Of course the mainstream media are quick to blame the Chinese government but the blame lies much closer to home, in the boardrooms of the trans-nationals. Hopefully, the Mattel affair will stir workers not only to resist but to form alliances with the environmental movement and one hopes with emerging labour movements in countries like China, for it is only when workers unite globally that we stand a chance of not only reversing the slide toward climate catastrophe but of getting rid of an economic system that cares only about profit, not about workers wherever they may be.


1. ‘Toymaking in China, Mattel’s Way’, New York Times, July 26, 2007.

2. See ‘Independent Monitor Completes Audit of Mattel Suppliers in China’.

3. For a potted history of the company (but one which excludes any info on Mattel moving production to China), see the Wiki entry on Mattel

Also see ‘China: It’s Mattel’s Fault That Chinese Companies Manufactured Toys Covered With Lead. What?’

4. See ‘Maquiladoras at a Glance‘, CorpWatch June 30th, 1999

5. See for example, ‘Farmers Rally Against Special Economic Zones‘, The South Asian, 1 October, 2006

6. See, ‘Wakeup‘.

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