With a spate of safety recalls already drawing scrutiny to the multibillion dollar toy industry and products manufactured in China, a Senate panel heard grim testimony Thursday on another aspect of toy production -- the plight of workers in China who work in toy factories.
A panel of international labor activists said workers in toy factories are forced to work 14-hour shifts for six or seven days a week, with no job security and for extremely low pay -- as little as 53 cents an hour.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who is pushing legislation that would make it illegal to import or sell goods in the United States that are made abroad in sweatshops or by prisoners, said American consumers should consider the working conditions in foreign countries just as they consider the safety of products made abroad.
"It seems to me, after what we've done to pull ourselves up and create a middle class and insure working conditions in this country," Dorgan said, "we should not allow the products of sweatshop labor to be brought into America and sold on our toy shelves."
Americans are preparing to spend billions on toys during the holiday season.
The largest toy distributor in the United States is Wal-Mart, and Bama Athreya, director of the activist group International Labor Rights Forum, claimed the discount chain will sell $7 billion worth of toys this year.
It is that company's ability to demand lower costs, she argued, that has contributed to some of the poor working conditions in China.
"Wal-Mart bears a lion share of responsibility for pushing the toy industry to a place where worker health and safety are basically nonexistent," Athreya testified to Congress.
She also criticized toy companies like Mattel, Hasbro and the Walt Disney Company, the parent company of ABC News.
Dorgan said he invited representatives for Mattel and the toy industry to take part in the hearing but they declined.
But present at the hearing was Peter Eio, who is a past chair of the Toy Industry Association and now sits on the board of the International Council of Toy Industries, a toy industry funded group that works with Wal-Mart and certifies toy factories for compliance in ethically treating workers.
The group has given its seal of approval to 669 factories worldwide. But Eio said it will be a years-long process to get all of the thousands of toy factories certified.
In China alone there are an estimated 8,000 factories that manufacture toys, according to Athreya.
The base wage in Shenzhen, China, where many toy factories are located, is just 53 cents an hour, said Charles Kernaghan, the director of the National Labor Committee.
Kernaghan held up a Barbie doll during the hearing and asserted to senators that it costs around $9 to manufacture, but retails for more than $29.
"There's enough money here to make the toys safe and treat the workers fairly," Kernaghan said, waving the pink Barbie toy package above his head.
A spokesperson for Mattel, which manufactures Barbie, said after the hearing that the company is looking into allegations by Kernaghan that the working conditions in the Xen Yi factory are poor.