July 2, 2008  |  Download PDF  |  Share

Nightmare on Sesame Street


By Charles Kernaghan

Why is it we never have the chance to meet the Chinese workers?

In China, the busy toy season is already in full swing as thousands of factories work around the clock churning out millions of holiday toys, which will start arriving in the United States and Europe by September. Like last year and the years before, the American people will spend over $21 billion on 3.6 billion toys this holiday season. At least 85 percent of these toys are made in China by three million mostly young women workers toiling long hours in 8,000 factories. And these are only the factories that have export licensees, leaving aside the many smaller subcontract toy plants.

Just stop to think of it for a second. Year after year we purchase tens of billions of dollars of toys and sporting goods made in China by more than three million mostly young women, yet we have not had the chance to meet or hear from any of these workers—not a single one, not even once. There is, of course, a reason for this. The corporations do not want us to know the conditions under which their toys are made. Corporations like Sesame Street, K’NEX and Hasbro want to move the harsh factory conditions and low wages faced by the young toy workers as far away as possible from the clever and sweet images they use to advertise their toys.

This report on the abusive sweatshop conditions under which Sesame Street’s ‘Ernie’ is made by K’NEX at the Kai Da factory is a modest first step to allow the parents and children who purchase these toys to hear directly from the young workers in China who make them.

Eight workers share each dorm room, sleeping in narrow, double-level metal bunk beds. The workers drape old sheets or pieces of plastic over their cubicle openings for privacy. The dorm rooms lack water or a toilet.


  • Sesame Street's Kid K’NEX “Ernie” construction toys are made at the Kai Da factory in Shenzhen City, China, by 600 mostly young workers, including a hundred 16 year old high school students, and even several children. The child workers were seen in the factory in April, which is exactly the time a local newspaper in China exposed that hundreds, if not thousands of children were trafficked from Sichuan Province to the south of China, where they worked under slave labor conditions in toy and other assembly plants.
  • Every single labor law in China is systematically and grossly violated at the Kai Da Toy factory.
  • Illegally, all workers are hired as temps with contracts lasting just three to six months. Once inside the factory, workers cannot leave until their contracts expire. If anyone does quit, they will be docked one-month’s wages.
  • Routine 13-14-15 hour shifts, from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00, 10:00 or 11:00 p.m., seven days a week, with the workers toiling for months without a single day off. There are also mandatory 19 and 23 ½ hour all-night shifts before the toy shipments must leave for the U.S. or Europe. Workers are typically at the factory 103 hours a week. All overtime is mandatory, and the 49 hours of overtime worked each week exceeds China’s legal limit by 489 percent!
  • Workers are systematically cheated of half the wage legally due them. Many workers earn just 43 cents an hour which is 31 percent below Shenzhen City’s minimum wage of 62 cents, which is itself not a subsistence level wage. Workers are paid just $36.55 for working an 89-hour week, including 49 hours of overtime. They should have earned at least $77.84. Management routinely cheats the poor workers of over $100,000 a month in wages due them. After deductions for primitive room and board, take home wages can drop to just 28 cents an hour.
  • Workers sweat as they race to assemble 50 Ernie toys per hour, and up to 650 in a 13-hour shift. The workers are paid less than a penny for each toy they assemble. Workers must complete one operation every four seconds, 950 per hour, and 12,350 options in the 13 hour shift.
  • Workers handle potentially toxic oil spray paints and solvents without being provided even the most rudimentary protective gear.
  • Workers are denied basic work injury and health insurance, despite the fact that this is mandatory under China’s laws.
  • Workers are denied basic work injury and health insurance, despite the fact that this is mandatory under China’s laws.
  • The workers’ cafeteria is filthy, with grease on the floor and infested with mice. For breakfast the workers are fed a rice gruel. The egg soup, which is in a dirty vat, is made with just 34 eggs to serve 600 workers. The so-called meat dishes have little or no meat.
  • One toy worker asked parents who purchase the Ernie toy to—“think of how much sweat and tears we paid in order to make these toys.”
  • K’NEX is an official licensee of Sesame Street Toys. Hasbro owns 50 percent of K’NEX’s international operation.
  • Parents and children should demand that Sesame Street, Hasbro and K’NEX immediately clean up the Kai Da Toy factory and take concrete steps to guarantee that the legal rights of the workers will finally be respected. There is absolutely no reason why these powerful toy companies could not pay fair wages and treat the workers as human beings.
  • The American people purchase $21 billion-worth of toys each year—more than 85 percent of which are made in China.

For the full report, please download the PDF file (above)

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