Consumers are being asked to think twice when buying gifts this Christmas after reports that a Chinese factory making Disney and Fisher-Price dolls is being investigated over its treatment of workers by an ethical scheme for the toy industry.

An investigation by human rights groups Solidar Suisse and China Labor Watch found that staff at a toy factory in Heyuan, in the southern province of Guangdong, were working illegal overtime, receiving no holiday or sick pay, and often earned less than US$1.30 per hour.

The mostly female workforce at the Wah Tung factory – which has been certified by responsible sourcing scheme the Ethical Toy Programme (ETP) – make toys for Disney, Mattel’s Fisher-Price brand and other global companies, according to the two groups.

Neither Disney nor Mattel were immediately available to comment.

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The two toy giants are members of the ETP, which says it certifies and audits about 1,200 toy factories worldwide for more than 1,000 brands and retailers with the aim of improving workers’ lives and raising labour standards across the industry.

“We take the issues raised by China Labor Watch (CLW) very seriously and have launched our own investigation, we will quickly and effectively address any issues identified which are in breach of our standards,” ETP spokesman Mark Robertson said.

“This investigation will include a review of each CLW allegation, an analysis of existing audit data, factory visits to investigate allegations, and follow-up meetings with factory management.”

Workers at the factory make a Princess Ariel doll – from Disney’s animated tale The Little Mermaid – which sells online for US$45, yet receive an average of just four cents per toy, said The Guardian newspaper, which first reported the story.

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While such findings are concerning, they are not uncommon, according to Joanna Ewart-James – executive director of anti-slavery network Freedom United – who urged the public to challenge companies that profited at the expense of their workers.

From shrimp and smartphones to textiles and toys, major brands face rising regulatory and consumer pressure to ensure their supply chains are free of labour abuses as the world looks to meet a United Nations goal of ending modern slavery by 2030.

“It might be uncomfortable, but I hope this Christmas we as consumers think about who is behind the gifts we buy for our loved ones,” said Jakub Sobik of Anti-Slavery International.

“[We must] start demanding that businesses do much more to make sure human misery doesn’t fuel the products they sell to us,” the group’s spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Christmas cards sold by British retailer Sainsbury’s came under scrutiny last December after a shopper found a handwritten note ostensibly from a Chinese prisoner inside.

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