Inside a Chinese toy factory

March 3, 2008 4:04:56 PM PST
Last year, officials in the U.S. recalled millions of toys made in China because they contained too much lead.It raised a lot of concerns about oversight at toy factories in China.

Eyewitness News reporter Jim Dolan traveled to China and got an inside look at what, if anything, is being done to make sure toys are safe.

What happened when "Made in China" started to take on dark and dangerous overtones is a crisis of confidence China simply could not afford. Nor could the American companies who rely on the cheap manufacturing there to build products for American consumption.

The result is a lesson in economics that extends from the playpen in the nursery to the markets of Beijing.

At a new car dealership in Beijing, a young woman looks to buy her very first car. It will be not only her first car, but the first ever owned by anyone in her family. In fact, no one she grew up with has ever owned a car. She is part of the new middle class that is re-shaping China.

"I'm not looking for an expensive car, but I want it to look good from the outside," she said. "Signs of achievement are important, and this is one."

But the thriving middle class in China is dependant on a still-booming manufacturing business that took a major hit last year. Raw materials, like lead-based paint used on some toys, outraged parents who were worried about the health effects for their children.

"I think initially, the drop was on the the factory," said Jonathon Samet, publisher of "The Toy Book." "The factory looking to save costs and get products out there, by putting some lead componants into the paint process speeds up the drying process, makes a little bit of a shiny product."

There were massive recalls and it cost manufacturers in China millions in lost production.

So they acted quickly. Every vendor that sells raw materials to toy manufacturerers now has to submit testing material to make sure they meet United States' standards, so that when Americans buy toys made in China, they will feel more comfortable about it.

At the Gee Toy Factory in Beijing, workers spend 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, at the tables making stuffed animals for export to Canada, Australia and the U.S. They earn about $200 a month, far more than they could have earned working on their family's farms in their home provinces.

They live on the factory grounds and most of the money they earn is sent back home to their families. It is money that is spent there to the benefit of local villagers. So you can see the cascading effect on so many people's lives if Americans had stopped buying toys produced there. China's economy couldn't afford that, and so the changes continue even now.

"You're going to see the manufacturers, the factories and the retailers also, everybody's going to do tighter guidelines to make sure that products pass all safety issues," Samet said.

Which means the manufacturing industry will continue to support China's economic boom, not all of which is healthy.

Manufacturing has fueled an economic boom in China that is lifting millions of people out of poverty, so much so that they are starting to demand higher wages. And suddenly, everyone wants a car, heat for their home, the things America's middle class has taken for granted for decades.