Sunday, December 07, 2003

(R)etch and Sketch: Erasing American Jobs

Not to make holiday shopping a downer or anything, but…..
SHENZHEN, China — Workers at Kin Ki Industrial, a leading Chinese toy maker, make a decent salary, rarely work nights or weekends and often "hang out along the street, play Ping-Pong and watch TV."

They all have work contracts, pensions and medical benefits. The factory canteen offers tasty food. The dormitories are comfortable.

These are the official working conditions at Kin Ki as they are described on paper — crib sheets — handed to workers just before inspections.

Those occur when big American clients, like the Ohio company that uses Kin Ki to produce the iconic toy Etch A Sketch, visit to make sure that the factory has good labor standards.

Real-world Kin Ki employees, mostly teenage migrants from internal provinces, say they work many more hours and earn about 40 percent less than the company claims. They sleep head-to-toe in tiny rooms. They staged two strikes recently demanding they get paid closer to the legal minimum wage.

Most do not have pensions, medical insurance or work contracts. The company's crib sheet recommends if inspectors press to see such documents, workers should "intentionally waste time and then say they can't find them," according to company memos provided to The New York Times by employees.

After first saying that Kin Ki strictly abides by all Chinese labor laws, Johnson Tao, a senior executive with the privately owned company, acknowledged that Kin Ki's wages and benefits fell short of legal levels and vowed to address the issue soon.

He said that the memos might have reflected attempts by factory managers to deceive inspectors, but that such behavior "did not have the support of senior management."


Etch A Sketch is the same child's drawing toy today that it was in 1960, when Ohio Art first produced it in Bryan, Ohio. But efforts to keep its selling price below $10 on shelves at Wal-Mart and Toys "R" Us forced the company to move production to China three years ago.

Today the same toy is made not just for lower wages, but also under significantly harsher working conditions. Kin Ki's workers, in fact, are struggling to obtain rights that their American predecessors at Ohio Art won early in the last century, though the workers are without the aid of independent unions, which remain illegal in China.

China now makes 80 percent of the toys sold in America, according to United States government figures, and no industry here has come under greater pressure to adhere to global labor codes.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
An Ohio Town Is Hard Hit as Leading Industry Moves to China

RYAN, Ohio — For 40 years workers in Bryan made Etch A Sketch, a children's drawing toy that has outlasted almost all others, and to a significant extent Etch A Sketch made Bryan.
This town of about 8,000, tucked into the northwestern corner of Ohio, has a tool and die factory, a tire company and a candy maker. But Etch A Sketch, the signature product of the Ohio Art Company, was Bryan's mascot. It marched in Bryan's parades. It was the mayor's calling card and the town's alter ego.

"You tell people you're from Bryan and they look at you blankly," said Carolyn Miller, a longtime assembly line worker at Ohio Art. "You tell them it's the home of Etch A Sketch, and they smile."

That was true, at least, until a winter day three years ago, a week before Christmas, when Ohio Art executives called representatives of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers Union into head offices and delivered the news. The Etch A Sketch line was moving to Shenzhen, China. About 100 union employees would lose their jobs.