The Ugly Truth Behind an American Beauty

The Ugly Truth Behind an American Beauty

On Christmas day your child eagerly shakes each gift under the tree, and listens for the rattle of a small plastic figure. Like millions of other little girls, your daughter holds her breath and hopes to find a petite and trendy looking structure called a Barbie doll. Since the 1950’s girls under the age of thirteen have viewed her as the embodiment of an American beauty, but her roots prove that she is anything but a true American. In fact, no Barbie’s has ever been made in the USA (The Creation of Barbie Dolls, 2005). She actually descends from a rundown sweatshop, tucked in the slumps of a third world country. As your child unwraps their present, they have no idea that their new doll was actually made by a young Chinese girl, no older than they are. When purchasing this gift it probably never crossed your mind that the little girl who made this doll withstands fifteen hour work days, less than livable pay, and excruciating physical pain just to produce your child’s toy. The naïveté of our society’s children is to be expected, as a child I too was captivated by the utter perfection of Barbie, but a parent should not be so easily deceived. After one examines the truth behind the vibrant label, it is evident that the path that a Barbie doll has to travel to reach your hands is anything but glamorous.

Over the course of several decades, Matell has transformed itself into a billion dollar industry that thrives off of a rapid commodity chain. They mass produce these dolls as cheaply as possible and in extremely large quantities. In these countries, the demand for employment is so great, that many are willing to withstand severe injustice, just to keep their jobs and put food on the table for their families. Matell, company that is now responsible for the mistreatment of thousands of foreign workers, was once known for quite the opposite. In the 1970’s Matell was acknowledged for their fair wages and happy employees. They provided room and board, education and social opportunities for their workers. In fact, the women who worked in their factories “had a reputation for being just as beautiful and precious as the dolls they made”(Homecoming, 2005). The conditions in Matell’s factories today, prove that the focus of the company has fundamentally shifted into one of pure greed and negligence. Guadalupe Avila Jimenez, a twenty one-year old, recalls the constant verbal abuse she received while working in one of these sweatshops, “They shouted at us, they did not let us go to the bathroom, they gave us food that made us vomit” (Malkin 2005). When Jimenez was working they would often lock the doors to force the employees to work overtime. Based on the overwhelming number of recorded medical conditions, it seems that the health of their employees is hardly a concern. Many workers in these factories would have greatly benefited from a simple face mask to protect them from inhaling the harsh chemicals. Unfortunatley, Matell requires that their employees buy their own masks, which in many cases is impossible with such slim earnings. An American journalist recently traveled to The Dyanmics factory in Bangkok where she was shocked by the conditions of Mattel’s factory. The air was so dusty that even the mangers in the sweatshop would not come in for fear of being contaminated (Foek, 1997). Nearly all of the women that this journalist met were suffering hair and memory loss, nausea, burns and neck pain. Most noticeably however, was that nearly all of the workers were experiencing some sort of respiratory difficulty. A study of blood samples taken from women working in Mattel factories showed that the workers had levels of lead greater than 20 micrograms per 100 milliliters. A Matell factory in China reported that 75% of the workers had respiratory infections from inhaling such large amounts of dust (Chiarello, 2005). When workers get sick, the company often denies that their illnesses are work related, and therefore refuse to cover the hospital fees (Foek 2008). This causes many illnesses to go untreated, unrecognized, and worsen gradually over time, until the individual is faced with lifelong conditions. The National Labor Committee found that, “workers were made to work seven days a week for months on end, with routine 15 hour days, in steaming hot factories where workers were barred from standing…and they had to sit on hard wood benches with no backs”(Blumner, 2007) No parent who buys their child a Barbie stops to think of the physical pain that went into producing the doll. Perhaps if they did, they would give it a second thought.

Mattel’s ability to successfully manipulate and deceive the public, has allowed them to thrive and dominate the toy industry for decades. They have been able to mislead the government, their inspectors and most importantly, their consumers. The workers however, are very familiar with the factory managers’ carefully calculated schemes. In one of Mattel’s Shenzhen factories, a 24- year old worker reveals that during an inspection, “they told us to lie”(Goldman, 2004). Many workers would rather be coerced into lying, than get fired or have their factory shut down. As the situation stands, Mattel is winning on both ends; they get to keep their workers, and keep their low-level working conditions as long as they pass an annual inspection. Some workers are even forced to lie about their identity. Although a spokeswoman for Mattel stated “child labor is a zero-tolerance issue for us”(Malkin 2005), reports claim otherwise. A teenage girl, Teresite de Jesus Heranadez, a former Mattel factory worker, acted as the sole financial support for her family for many years. She was hired by one of Mattel’s plants when she was just 14 years old, “[she was told] that her age was not a problem, the plant manger altered her birth certificate” accordingly (Malkin 2005). In December of 1996, NBC dateline explored the child slave labor of the Mattel Corporation. They found that girls as young as thirteen, were working overtime, traveling long distances to work, and were riding their bikes home by themselves late at night (Chiarello, 2005). Matell has forcefully pursued negotiations that have exempted them from complying with specific regulations. Among these regulations are those that would protect the rights and working hours of their workers. In the past Matell has “gotten waivers that allowed them to force workers to do 32 hours of overtime a week-an amount that is 296 percent above China’s legal limit”(Blumner, 2007). It also seems questionable that Mattel is able to pass their factory inspections when they do not have sprinkler system, fire alarms, hoses, fire escapes, but do have heavy mesh covering all of their windows (Chiarello 2005). In 1993, one of their Chinese factories caught on fire killing 87 workers, and still, Mattel did nothing to improve its factory conditions. Many impoverished countries rely on these factories as sources of employment. Thailand’s Prime Minister is willing to overlook the illegal conditions of Matell’s factories; for fear that the gross domestic product would decline if they were to be closed down. From an economic standpoint his claim is understandable, but from a moral standpoint it is truly disgraceful. American factories would never stand for these conditions or injustices but Mattel has skillfully found a way to take advantage of economically weak, third world nations.

It seems that Matell is more focused on profitability than morality. They are a huge corporation with earnings as high as $500 billion per year, and strikingly, only $10 billion goes to the workers and the factories. The price that the consumers are paying for these dolls, far exceed the amount the workers earn for making them. Matell’s CEO, Robert Eckert holds a very clear view on this issue. While he attempts to express genuine concern for the wellbeing of his workers, his true focus is sustaining Matell’s toy-making superpower status, “Do we want to unilaterally do things that make us uncompetitive and therefore our products don't sell and therefore nobody gets employed? No."(Goldman, 2004). Perhaps this mentality has prompted Matell to seek the means necessary to get by with paying their workers less than sufficient wages. In China, the company obtained special waivers so that they could pay their workers less than the legal minimum (Blumner 2007). Workers are certainly suffering from the backlash of these ill-intentioned deals. According to an investigation of a China factory “workers report being regularly cheated out of the equivalent of two days’ wages every week, even though their base wage is only 53 cents an hour” (Blumner 2007). Once exposed to these facts it is apparent that what Mattel is doing is wrong. They have found nearly every avenue possible, so that they can get by with paying their workers the lowest possible rate. Not only do they seek these legal loopholes, but they strategically place their factories deep into the central third world countries, as to escape from possible public scrutiny. Deep into these countries the wages are almost half of what they are on the boarders (Malkin 2005). Unfortunately, Matell has a hold on these workers, because without these jobs, many of these citizens would be left unemployed and homeless. Knowing this, Mattel can either continue on their path of discriminatory action, or they can redistribute so that just a few more dollars are put into the workers wages. Matell spends $2.76 advertising each Barbie, which is more than a worker in China makes each day(Garner 1995). Although the company has continually claimed that it will investigate such allegations, no noticeable changes have been made thus far. In perspective, the Matell wages are so low, that an employee would have to work 523 days just to match the amount that Matell spends advertising Barbie in one day (Garner 1995). One would suspect that the workers would have walked away from such conditions by now, but that is exactly the dilemma. They are sitting by as their rights as human beings are being exploited, on the basis that earning just enough to get by is better than earning nothing at all.

For many little girls their first Barbie doll will certainly not be their last. Matell is at the top of its game, and knows just how to feed this growing obsession. Currently, they release over one hundred and fifty new models of Barbie into the market each year. (Enriquez, 2003). As children continue to want, and parents continue to buy, Matell will see no reason to improve its conditions. If nothing else, the Barbie consumer should bear in mind that behind the doll with a pearly white smile, and perfectly flowing hair, lie thousands of suffering and degraded workers, whose flesh and blood is jeopardized for a mere toy. Whether it is a moral or legal issue, one thing is clear; Mattel is doing little to suffice either. They are pursuing any and every route possible to maintain their low standards. This issue is hardly new, and as unfortunate as it is, the workers are impotent in this situation. As an American corporation Matell’s factories should be required to meet the same standards overseas as they would if they were right here in the U.S. As Matell continues to sell two Barbie dolls every second, their factory conditions will be of little concern to the Matell executives (History Channel 2005). It seems that the power now lies in the hands of you, the consumer. When their dolls stop leaving the shelves, perhaps they might finally realize that it’s time to make a change.