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.