The Creation of a Barbie


Made where?

Most stores that have a toy section have a Barbie section. In this section are rows and columns of Barbie dolls, friends and paraphernalia. To find out where Barbie was made, walk down one of these isles and pick up a Barbie doll box. It will probably be a pink box, Barbie's signature color. On the side panel of the box, most likely towards the bottom, is a lot of small print. In the middle of the small print, in bold lettering, will be the phrase Made in China or Made in Malaysia or Made in Indonesia. Then, smile, relax, and wallow in the pleasure of discovering the truth behind the magic, the secret of Barbie's creation. Applaud yourself for closing in the boundary between production and consumption, for liberating yourself from the consumptive state of alienation.

If only it was that easy.

Everyone knows that a magician does not easily, if ever, reveal his secrets. Mattel is no different. When asked to provide details of the sources of the materials that went into the making of Barbie, Mattel spokesman, Glenn Bozarth, responded, "We consider the information to be proprietary in nature" (Tempest, 1). The secrets behind the magic of Barbie are not found in the small print on the side of a pink box. What does it mean to be Made in China? Is it any different from being Made in Malaysia or Made in Indonesia? Indeed, the secret behind the making of Barbie extends beyond those boundaries and into other lands and industries, into the hearts and lives of real people living real lives.


Top Secret: The Materials

A plastic doll with clothes. It appears simple enough--but not quite.

 

"We consider the information to be proprietary in nature"

Mattel spokesman Glenn Bozarth, when asked to provide

details of the sources and prices of Barbie materials

 

Mission: Impossible was conducted by a Los Angeles Times reporter who, lacking the cooperation of Mattel, sought out the production origins of a store shelf Barbie. The following is a summary of what he found.

The production of Barbie begins in the commodity management center of Mattel's El Segundo, California headquarters. This is where Mattel's material and economic experts join to determine where and who they should look to to provide the plastic, fabric, and other Barbie parts. This was about all the information Mattel would divulge to the Los Angeles Times reporter. But he was able to obtain approximate locations of material providers from other sources, such as the U.S. Commerce Department, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation, and the Hong Kong Toy Council.

Material sources

El Segundo, CA., U.S.A.

Mattel Inc. headquarters

United States

Cardboard packaging, paint pigments, molds

China

Factory space, labor, electricity, cotton cloth for Barbie dresses

Saudi Arabia

Oil

Hong Kong

Management, shipping

Taiwan

Refines oil into ethylene for plastic pellets for Barbie's body

Japan

Nylon hair

Cost Analysis

Retail Price

$9.99

Shipping, ground transportation, marketing wholesale, retail, profit

$7.99

Export Value

$2.00

Breakdown of Export Value ($2.00)

Overhead and Management

$1.00

Materials (Various Sources)

$0.65

Labor

$0.35

The machinery and tools used to make Barbie, including the plastic injection mold machines, comes from Japan, Europe and the United States. The molds themselves are the most expensive item in the toy making and come from the United States, Japan or Hong Kong. Almost all of the materials involved in making Barbie are shipped through Hong Kong and trucked to the Guangdong factories. The $2 export value is placed on the Barbie doll when it leaves Hong Kong Harbor.

According to the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, about 23,000 trucks make the daily four-hour round trip from Hong Kong harbor. They arrive bearing the raw materials and leave carrying the finished products, already packed in containers ready to load on ships destined for the world's ports. Los Angeles gets the biggest share.

Some of the dolls never make it on to the store shelves. They end up in the hands of quality-control testers at the El Segundo, CA. test lab. These testers "examine the hair or strength and durability . . . yanks Barbie's limbs, pours sand on her, burns her hair and bakes her in simulated sunlight." All of this to insure that Barbie will "withstand the strong arms and teeth of 5 year olds" and will live up to her 25-year life expectancy.


In the Toy Factory: The Labor

Barbie dolls have never been made in the U.S.A. The first Barbie doll was produced in Japan in 1959. As Japan's economy recovered from WWII and began flourishing, the cost of labor increased, sending Mattel off searching for cheap labor. Mattel now has four factories which produce 100 million Barbie dolls a year. There is one factory each in Indonesia and Malaysia and two factories in China. In China, the Meitai factory is located in Dongguan, and the Zhongmei factory is in Nanhai. The Meitai plant makes the plastic dolls and the clothes while the Zhongmei plant makes only the dolls. Each of the these Chinese factories have 5,500 workers. U.S. News attempted to enter the Meitai facility but were denied access. However, from "a couple of tinted-glass windows that have been left open," they were able to see "columns of women running sewing machines with spools of neon pink thread."

Labor, as seen in the cost analysis table above, is the cheapest and most important part of Barbie production. "The workers operate the plastic mold injection machines, sew the clothing and paint the details on the doll. A typical Barbie requires 15 separate paint stations." Because of the multitude of detailed tasks involved in the production of Barbie, labor costs must be kept to a minimum.


Inside the Sweatshop Factory

Sweatshop Barbie: exploitation of Third World labor

That was the headline of the article written in the January/February 1997 issue of The Humanist by Anton Foek. Foek wrote an article describing his first hand experience at the Dynamics factory, located outside of Bangkok, Thailand. At the factory, he saw "hundreds of women and children stuffing, cutting, dressing, and assembling Barbie dolls--as well as the Lion Kings . . . and other Disney properties." Foek goes on to describe the physical and psychological strain that these workers were under. Their ailments ranged from pain in various parts of the body to complaints of nausea, dizziness, and hair and memory loss. "More than 75 percent of the people working here have breathing problems," writes Foek, "The air in the factory is so dusty that even the managers don't come in for fear of being contaminated. And of the hundreds of workers I saw, all of them, without exception, have black walls under their eyes." The working conditions at the Dynamics factory and other toy factories throughout Southeast Asia entail "long hours, hard work, low pay, no vacations, no sick days, no rights." There are no unions to represent the workers. Fear of losing their jobs and physical harm prevent the workers from organizing themselves to protest their dangerous work environment.

Foek's article conflicts with an earlier statement of mine. My research revealed that Mattel only manufactured Barbie dolls at the four factories stated above, none of which is located in Thailand. Foek, however, claims that Barbie's were being manufactured at the Dynamics plant. After this article was released, The Humanist printed a response from Mattel stating that all of Foek's allegations were false and that "Mattel does not currently, nor has it ever, manufactured Barbie dolls at the Dynamic plant in Bangkok."

However, curious about the validity of both claims, I did some more research and discovered an article in The Times which also discussed the Dynamics factory. The article was dated December 20, 1996, about a month prior to the release of Foek's piece. The story centered around "workers in a toy factory in Thailand that makes Barbie dolls and the soft-toy version of the 101 Dalmatians that Disney is relaunching this Christmas." The toy factory is soon after revealed to be the Dynamic plant. A worker interviewed for this article describes the same illegal practice of "continual temporary contracts" that a worker in Foek's article also speaks about: "I have worked at the factory for four years, but after I have worked for three or four months they make me resign and then reapply. That way, they don't have to pay me for holidays or sick leave. "

In the January 5, 1996 issue of Truth, a New Zealand periodical, a Thai factory was once again the topic of an article. This piece was release one year prior to the Foek article and did not mention the factory by name. The article does mention that Barbie dolls are manufactured in this factory and goes on to describe the sweatshop conditions. A worker, named Sunanta, is referred to throughout the article. In Foek's article, he also refers to a worker named Sunanta. After taking a close look at descriptions of both workers, it appears that both articles were referring to the same worker. The Truth article focused more on Sunanta's working conditions while The Humanist article, written one year later, focused on Sunanta's declining work-related health problems. All three articles, apparently independent from each other, mention Mattel and the production of Barbie dolls at a Thai factory. Yet, Mattel says that there is no such thing.

Placing the Dynamics factory predicament aside, Mattel has also been accused of other bad practices in their other factories. Mattel says it pays its workers above minimum wage, but, as U.S. News pointed out, it has been alleged that "Mattel requires workers to toil much longer during peak production periods, driving hourly pay below official minimums. As a result, Mattel's critics allege,some workers make only $1.81 a day versus the minimum of $1.99." Mattel Senior Vice President Glenn Bozarth, who as mentioned earlier declined to divulge the sources and prices of Barbie materials, also refused to address how much money workers actually receive.

On November 20, 1997, Mattel announced that it had banned the use of child labor in its factories under a new corporate code of conduct. The company also announced the establishment of an independent monitoring system for all its factories.

A total of ten additional contractor facilities currently face potential termination if Mattel inspectors find they have not begun implementing recommended environmental changes by the end of this year. Other facilities in various parts of the world were found to require work environment improvement in order to fully comply with Mattel's Principles, however all had agreed to corrective actions and an implementation timeline. (Online Newswire)


Sources

 

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