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.
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.
Their living conditions are prison-like with up to six people sharing small cramped dormitories and up to 50 people sharing one bathroom.
Rather than learning skills related to their respective discipline, the students work as frontline production workers.
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.
Female workers rarely get maternity leave, and with extreme hours and no childcare facilities they cannot take care of their kids.
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.
Many factory workers are not even required to wear safety equipment, including those who spend extensive amounts of time spray painting toys.
And the companies usually forgo paying the workers' entitled monthly salary if they're on medical leave.
Workers can usually jump from job to job fairly easily, but they usually do not receive a substantial pay increase.
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.
But as China moved toward a market economy, cheap rural labour became integral to the country's growth.
The limitations on migration were reduced and around 85 per cent of China's rural poor flocked to the cities in search of employment.
They endure poor working conditions such as excessive and forced overtime, yet don't even have basic social security benefits or employment contracts.
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.
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.'
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