HONG KONG (Reuters) - A U.S.-based workers' rights group said it found "brutal conditions" and labor violations at eight Chinese plants that make toys for big multinationals, and called on the companies to take steps for better standards.
China Labor Watch said in a report issued on Tuesday after several months of investigation that the manufacturers -- which served a handful of global players, including Walt Disney Co, Bandai and Hasbro Inc -- paid "little heed to the most basic standards of the country."
"Wages are low, benefits are nonexistent, work environments are dangerous and living conditions are humiliating," it said.
The report comes as Chinese exports are under growing scrutiny abroad over safety concerns a week after Mattel Inc recalled millions of toys, including 436,000 die-cast toy cars from its "Cars" line, because they may contain excessive amounts of lead.
China has also been hauled over the coals for the safety of food, drugs and other exports ranging from tires to toothpaste. Officials have been quick to say that the vast majority of the country's exports meet standards.
"Whether it's high prices for construction equipment, gasoline shortages and high prices, what you continue to hear is China is the reason for it because of their burgeoning growth," said Pam Ellen, an assistant marketing professor at Georgia State's Robinson College of Business.
"It's likely to create a consumer backlash."
The report concluded that "short-sighted policies" drive major companies to "turn a blind eye to safety -- and to ignore the labor conditions in their supplier factories as well."
"Instead of concentrating on improving product safety and workers' lives, companies spend their energy creating beautiful pamphlets on social responsibility, disputing critical reports and shifting blame," it said.
Disney said that it and its affiliates take claims of unfair labor practices very seriously, investigate any such allegations thoroughly and take remedial action.
"We have a firm commitment to the safety and well-being of workers, and fair and just labor standards," spokeswoman Alannah Goss said in an e-mailed statement.
Hasbro said it takes the report seriously and will conduct a thorough investigation.
"While we respect their mission, it's important to note that some of the past reports have had some inaccuracies once we've investigated certain claims," Hasbro spokesman Wayne Charness told Reuters. "Not only do we have an approved auditing body going in and reviewing these factories, we also conduct our own audits to ensure that our factories are in compliance."
Japan's Bandai, meanwhile, declined to comment.
China Labor Watch listed steps big international firms should take, including: pay supplier factories a reasonable price for their products, help the factories correct violations and take responsibility for suppliers' legal infractions.
They should also pay better wages and publicize the results of factory audits, it said.
Many foreign companies and experts in Chinese manufacturing say it can be hard to verify whether or not a supplier is living up to commitments to meet labor and environmental standards 100 percent of the time.
Suppliers, including some named in the China Labor Watch report, sometimes coach employees how to answer questions during inspections, and many keep two sets of books to fool auditors.
Industry experts also say that some manufacturers show off clean, inspection-passing facilities to international clients when they visit, but secretly subcontract some of the work to hidden, substandard production lines that are cheaper to run.
In the Pearl River Delta, a manufacturing hub on the southern coast near Hong Kong that drives much of China's spectacular growth, labor conditions have "improved somewhat" in recent years but remain poor, China Labor Watch said.
"Corporate codes of conduct and checklist-auditing are not enough by themselves to strengthen workers' rights if corporations are unwilling to pay the real price it costs to produce a product according to the standards in their codes."
The group said it saw quality problems as "a result of multinationals' single-minded pursuit of ever-lower prices and neglect of other considerations."
Eighty percent of the $22.3 billion worth of toys sold in the United States were made in China, said China Labor Watch, which has been promoting labor rights in the country and reporting on working conditions there since 2000.
Additional reporting by Aiko Hayashi in Tokyo and Justin Grant in New York