Inside China's gruelling Toy Factories

chinese factory workers

Photo: Courtesy Michael Wolf

China makes more toys than any other country in the world. In fact, a whopping 75 per cent of toys come from the nation of nearly 1.4 billion people.But China’s rise in the world of manufacturing comes at a price.

Click here to go inside the factories >
Even though China has had rapid economic growth in the past decade, more than 482 million Chinese — that’s 36 per cent of the population — live on less than $2 per day, according to global anti-poverty nonprofit War On Want.

Plus, 85 per cent of China’s poor live in rural areas. Extreme poverty forces many of them to leave the countryside in search of employment in urban areas.

German photographer Michael Wolf has taken a phenomenal series of photos he calls “The Real Toy Story” that shows what workers’ lives are like as they make all those toys.

Wolf’s photographs come from visits to five toy factories around mainland China. He has given us permission to share them with you here.

Every day, the workers have to arrive 15 minutes before the regular work shift begins for a work assembly.

Source: Sacom

Their living conditions are prison-like with up to six people sharing small cramped dormitories and up to 50 people sharing one bathroom.

Source: War On Want

Source: Sacom

Rather than learning skills related to their respective discipline, the students work as frontline production workers.

Source: Sacom

Some factories promise workers a 10-minute break after every two hours of work.

Source: Sacom

Most workers never have benefited from these promises.

Source: Sacom

After the work shift, there is another work assembly which lasts for 15 minutes.

Source: Sacom

Even during the 30-minute lunch period, workers must return to the shop floor early to resume production or to attend another meeting. They are not paid for the time spent in these meetings or assemblies.

Source: Sacom


Workers endure long hours, 6-7 days a week.

Source: Sacom

The overtime work is up to 200 hours a month, which is more than five times the legal limit.

Source: Sacom

Female workers rarely get maternity leave, and with extreme hours and no childcare facilities they cannot take care of their kids.

Source: War On Want

Many women are forced to send their children to live with family in the countryside.

Toy production involves close contact with chemicals that are incredibly harmful to the workers' health.

This results in alarmingly high levels of occupational disease and work-related injuries. In 2009 alone, approximately one million workers were injured at work and about 20,000 suffered from diseases due to their occupation.

Source: War On Want

Many factory workers are not even required to wear safety equipment, including those who spend extensive amounts of time spray painting toys.

Source: War On Want

Injured workers report that factory management does not show interest in workers' well-being.

Source: Sacom

And the companies usually forgo paying the workers' entitled monthly salary if they're on medical leave.

Source: Sacom

By age 30, female migrants are considered too old for factory work and are discharged.

Source: War On Want

Workers can usually jump from job to job fairly easily, but they usually do not receive a substantial pay increase.

Most Chinese migrant workers do not own the products they spend their lives making.

How did it get like this? Before opening up its economy in the late '70s, the Chinese government issued tight control between rural and urban areas, which encouraged people to migrate to cities illegally.

Source: War On Want

Source: War On Want

But as China moved toward a market economy, cheap rural labour became integral to the country's growth.

Source: War On Want

The limitations on migration were reduced and around 85 per cent of China's rural poor flocked to the cities in search of employment.

Source: War On Want

However the restrictions on household registration of the hukou remained as rigid as ever.

Source: War On Want

Source: War On Want

They became outcasts in the eyes of their government.

Source: War On Want

That's approximately 150 million migrant workers who are utterly unprotected.

Source: War On Want

They endure poor working conditions such as excessive and forced overtime, yet don't even have basic social security benefits or employment contracts.

Source: War On Want

The workers' lack of awareness of their own rights and the Chinese government's unwillingness to address the abuse only perpetuate the system of inequality.

Source: War On Want

Multinational corporations and national factory owners take advantage of the anti-union climate.

Source: War On Want

Despite the terrible working conditions, workers are optimistic that they will be able to gain new skills and create a better life.

As for the photographer Michael Wolf, he has a display made out of 16,000 toys purchased second-hand from flea markets and stores across California. Each toy had a face and was 'made in China.'

Now see everyone buying toys like those

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