The January/February 97 issue of "The Humanitarist" features an article by Anton Foek depicting the appalling labor conditions in Bangkok for Barbie production. Foek visited the Dynamics factory just outside of Bangkok where Barbies, stuffed Lion Kings and other Disney toys are made by 4,500 (mostly female) workers.
He was greeted by women and children in a rally, carrying banners that said, "we are not slave labour!" Most of the workers come from northeastern Thailand, where the poverty is abject and extreme. If the girls aren't sold into sexual abusive slavery at 11 or 12, they are sent to work at big city factories to provide a steady income. It's "long hours, hard work, low pay, no vacations, no sick days, no rights. No union and thus no voice."
Many of the workers have respiratory infections that come from inhaling dust (75%), others that work with lead and various chemicals suffer from chronic lead poisoning. If a worker wants to wear a mask, she can, but first she has to buy it, and with the $4 a day salary, most simply can't afford the protection. They are in "a catch-22 situation: if they don't work, their relatives get nothing; if they do work, they get sick from all the chemicals and dust."
Foek also visited Dr. Orapun who is investigating the widespread illnesses and the cases of deaths of workers in Bangkok. She started investigating sweatshops in 1991 as the director of Thailand's National Institute of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. First she looked into deaths from Seagate Techonology, a computer harddisk giant, with some 21,000 workers. Thai officials told her to stop but she refused to be intimidated. She was shortly removed from her post, but continued her investigation. By examining blood samples and workers, she has found great levels of lead poisoning. Other diseases are caused by inhalation of dust and solvents.
Foek also visited women who used to work at the factories and are now in Bangkok's hospitals. 20 yr Sunanta, former Dynamics employee, said "When we get sick, they throw us out." Sunanta says at least four of her factory friends have died, most have no health insurance. Her head is almost bald and she breathes with great difficulty. After working at Dynamics for only a year, she started to develop problems: irregularities with her period, then headaches, memory loss, and now hair loss. Foek says she feels depressed and embarrassed, shy and ashamed of being sick. Most of these women make no eye contact, they are tired and weak. Sunanta is interested in starting a movement because she believes if she doesn't help the other workers, her life will have had no meaning. It is unclear if she will survive. Foek tells of her astonishment when he mentions that there are "2 Barbies sold somewhere in the world every second, and that Mattel made more than $3.2 billion in 1994. More than a billion pairs of shoes have been made for Barbie, many in Bangkok."
Foek closes the article by saying, "I cannot help thinking of Cindy Jackson, an American photographer in London who has had 19 cosmetic-surgery operations to make herself look like Barbie - at a cost of some $165,000. I wonder what would Jackson say if she could see these sick and dying women and know how brutally they have been exploited in order to make dolls for First World children. Pramitwa, Sunanta, and Metha [workers interviewed] have never heard of Cindy Jackson, but my guess is they are glad not to be in her shoes. For them, it would be unbearable to live a life looking like Barbie."
Anton Foek is a freelance writer based in NY City.