November, 01 2007 |  Download PDF |  Share

"Thomas & Friends" Goes to China: Stumbles And Is Recalled


Illegal sweatshop conditions at four factories in China
producing Thomas & Friends toys

Case studies of the Hansheng Wood Products, Peng Hui Plastics and Metal, Yong Yi Toy and the Ri Sheng Toy factories—all of which produce toys for the RC2 Corporation.



By Charles Kernaghan

I. Hansheng Wood Products Factory: Sweatshop Maker of Thomas & Friends Wooden Toy Trains

  • Following the massive June recall of Thomas & Friends wooden toy trains due to dangerous levels of lead paint, 1,000 workers—three quarters of the entire workforce—were laid off as of September. On October 19, the factory is to be shut down.
  • Workers cheated right up to the very end, being paid far less than half of the severance pay legally due them.
  • It is unclear whether any of Hansheng's workers who handled lead paint have been provided medical exams—as is required by law—to see if they are suffering any affects of lead poisoning.
  • While Thomas & Friends toys were being produced in the factory, the workers were routinely required to toil 14 ½ to 15, and sometimes 16-hour shifts, from 8:00 a.m. to 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. and even to midnight, six or seven days a week. During peak periods, workers would go for months without a single day off.
  • Workers routinely at the factory 87 to 102 hours a week, while working a minimum of 69 hours, to over 80 hours a week. Workers forced to toil 29 to 41 hours of overtime a week, which exceeds China's legal limit—of no more than 36 hours of overtime a month—by 250 to 389 percent!
  • A base wage of 53 cents an hour. Workers typically shortchanged of $38.35 in overtime pay legally due them each month—16 percent of what they are owed. This represents an enormous loss to the workers, as the weekly base wage is just $21.06.
  • Workers docked 2 ½ hours' wages for speaking during working hours or for arriving even five minutes late.
  • In blatant violation of China's laws, Hansheng workers were not inscribed in the mandatory national Social Security program, without which the workers are denied access to health care.
  • Workers are housed in primitive dorms, with 12 workers crowded into each room sleeping in double-level bunk beds.
  • Thomas & Friends/RC2 owes these workers their full severance pay along with compensation for having been cheated of their right to health care for a year or more. Workers are also owed back wages.
  • Workers have heard that the factory will relocate to the city of Shaoguan, where it will no doubt change its name to climb out from under the cloud of having made toxic toys.

II. Li Cheng Industrial Complex in Dongguan—houses RC2 Corporate Headquarters in China, along with three factories—Peng Hui, Yong Yi and Ri Sheng—which produce sweatshop toys for RC2 under licensing agreements with Thomas & Friends, Disney, Bob the Builder, Nintendo, Nascar and others.

There are 7,000 workers in total.

  • At the Yong Yi Toy factory, RC2 workers are forced to toil an all-night, 21-to-23-hour shift every Saturday, from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 or 7:00 a.m. the following Sunday morning. Working such an all-night shift is the only way workers are allowed Sunday "off."

Workers can be at the factory 98 hours a week, toiling 46 hours of overtime, which exceeds China's legal limit by 453 percent!

Workers are allowed less than five minutes to assemble each toy, for which they are paid just four cents.

  • At the Ri Sheng Toy factory, RC2 workers are routinely cheated of their overtime pay, receiving just 52 cents per hour, while by law all weekday overtime must be paid at 80 cents an hour and weekend overtime at $1.06 per hour. Workers are being cheated of $11.11 a week, or 42 percent, of the overtime wages legally due them.
  • The Peng Hui Plastics and Metal factory, which is the largest and busiest of the three factories producing RC2 sweatshop toys, hires all temps all the time. The mostly-young-women workers are allowed just three-month temporary contracts, which management, at its discretion, can renew every three months—but always as a "new" contract. Workers can be at the factory full time for a year or more, but always remain temporary workers with no legal rights. As temps, the workers are stripped of their legal right to health care, sick days, maternity leave, holidays, annual vacations, severance pay and so on. Such a scam has illegally reduced Thomas & Friends toy workers to a contingency workforce with no rights.

Workers can be fined for being "inattentive" at work. Anyone arriving 30 minutes late will be docked half a day's wages as punishment. Missing a day will result in the loss of two days' wages. Workers can be fired for having a "bad attitude."

In May 2007, the young women were forced to work seven days a week—without a single day off in the month—toiling 84 hours a week, including 44 hours of overtime, which exceeds China's legal limit by 430 percent! Since the massive recall of Thomas & Friends toys, workers are no longer required to toil seven days a week.

The current typical shift is 14 to 15 hours a day, from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 or 11:00 p.m., six days a week. This puts the workers at the factory 87 hours a week, while actually toiling 69 hours, or 11 ½ hours a day. This means the workers are routinely required to work 29 hours of overtime each week, and 126 overtime hours each month, exceeding China's legal limit of 36 overtime hours a month by 249 percent.

The workers are paid a base wage of 53 cents an hour and are routinely shortchanged of $14.67—or eight percent—of the overtime wages legally due them each week.

Everyone is drenched in their own sweat, as the factory is unbearably hot, made worse by the sheet metal roof which draws and holds the heat.

Illegally, Peng Hui's workers are not inscribed in China's mandatory national Social Security program, which strips them of their right to health insurance.

Eight workers are crowded into each dorm room, sleeping in double-level metal bunk beds which line the walls. Eleven to 14 workers must share a shower stall, cueing up each night to wait their turn to bathe.

The toy workers have no way to raise serious grievances, as there are no unions in any of the three plants in the RC2 Industrial Complex. If a worker wants to raise a complaint, they can only speak with the supervisor, if the supervisor will even stop to listen. Very little results from such appeals.

The RC2 Corporation hides its sweatshop production in China, refusing to disclose even the names and locations of their contractors' plants.

  • Once Thomas The Tank Engine play tents made in China enter the United States, the retail price is marked up $24.08—234 percent—above the total cost of production of just $10.32. Thomas the Tank play tents made in China for PlayHuts Inc. of California entered the U.S. on October 8, 2006 through the Port of Los Angeles. Shipping documents show the 5,280 Thomas the Tank play tents entering the U.S. with a landed Customs value—total cost of production—of $54,486, or just $10.32 each. The suggested U.S. retail price of $34.50 represents mark-up of $24.08—243 percent—over the total cost of production.

Such enormous mark-ups by the toy companies demonstrate once again that unsafe toys made under abusive sweatshop conditions do not have to be the norm. It does not have to be this way.



After "Thomas & Friends" Massive Toy Recall Workers in China Suffer Even More

Fifteen hundred workers laid off
Cheated to the end: shortchanged of their severance pay.

Hansheng Wood Products Factory
Wusha Village, Chang'An Town
Dongguan City, Guangdong Province

Production: Primarily wooden toys for export to the United States.

Following the recall, Hansheng workers continue to make small trains. The workers have no idea whether or not they are using the same lead paint as in the past. [Note: According to workers from the Yong Yi plant in the Li Cheng Hang Industrial Zone in Dongguan, where the RC2 company has its corporate headquarters in China, their plant routinely outsourced a great deal of work to the Hansheng Wood Products factory, often amounting to four full shipping containers a day. —The Li Cheng report follows this one on Hansheng.]

Number of Workers: Approximately 1,500 workers prior to this summer's massive
Thomas & Friends toy recall. Immediately following the recall and related international publicity, about half the workers were laid off, and the number continues to fall, with just 500 workers remaining as of September. On October 19, the factory will be shut down.


"Thomas & Friends" Sinks to the Level of Cheap Sweatshop Abuse

It is sad to see just how far "Thomas & Friends" has fallen, from the inspiration of a Presbyterian Minister in England back in the 1940s, who set out to create stories to amuse his sick child which were at once interesting, sweet, creative and sheer fun. Today, the RC2 Corporation has turned the Thomas & Friends toy line into just another sweatshop commodity, based on the abuse and exploitation of poor workers in China.

  • Mass layoffs: To date, 1,000 workers, three-quarters of the entire workforce have been laid off since the recall at the Hansheng Toy factory, the vast majority without receiving their full severance pay as mandated by law. Harsh treatment and threats are being used by management to force the remaining workers to leave the factory without receiving their benefits.
  • Management has now announced that the factory will be shut down for good on October 19 and the remaining workers will be let go. According to rumors reaching the workers, the Hansheng factory will relocate to the city of Shaoguan, where no doubt the factory will change its name to climb out from under the cloud of having produced toxic toys.
  • Workers are docked 1 ¼ to 2 ½ hours' wages for speaking during working hours—or for failing to turn off their cell phones when they enter the factory. Workers arriving even five minutes late are also docked 2 ½ hours' wages as punishment.
  • Forced and excessive overtime: Workers are at the factory anywhere from 87 to 102 hours a week, required to work a 14 ½ to 15-hour shift, from 8:00 a.m. to 10:30 or 11:00 p.m., and sometimes to midnight, six or seven days a week. Workers are forced to work anywhere from 29 to 41 hours of overtime a week, which exceeds China's legal limit on allowable overtime by 250 to 389 percent!
  • Workers are cheated of $38.35 each month—16 percent of the wages legally due them—which is an enormous amount of money for these poor workers, whose base wage is just $21.06 a week. Even with the massive amounts of mandatory overtime, the workers' average take-home wage is just 58 cents an hour.
  • The factory does not provide the mandatory Social Security health, work injury and pension insurance to its workers—another gross violation of China's labor laws.
  • Workers do not even have a legal employment contract as demanded by law.
  • Twelve workers crowd into each small dorm room, sleeping on double-level metal bunk beds that line the walls.
  • Management is apparently spreading rumors that the factory will soon close and relocate, hoping to frighten even more workers into quitting without their benefits.
  • Many workers were frightened to speak about factory conditions, since following the recall the factory has been in a sort of lock-down to prevent "outsiders" from asking questions.


Download the full report

Read the Institute director Charles Kernaghan's October 25 testimony before the Senate

Read How Western Corporations Worked to Weaken China's Worker and Human Rights Standards