The pink, sparkly dress of the Barbie doll has been veiling something much less glamorous—the loss of thousands of jobs when the company that manufactured the toy in the Philippines closed shop.
It is now a blurry episode for most Filipinos, but it may still be fresh in the memory of the workers, mostly women, who once produced the doll. Unlike the “perfect world” brought to the screen by director Greta Gerwig’s live adaptation film, “Barbie,” with the title role played by Hollywood star Margot Robbie, the production of the doll in the real world tells a different story.
Citing profit losses and industrial disputes, Barbie maker Mattel laid off its workers and closed down the three manufacturing plants it had established in the Philippines one after the other more than three decades ago. In the end, 4,000 workers lost their livelihood.
“Barbie,” the biggest Warner Bros. release so far this year in the Philippines, earned about $337 million globally in its opening weekend alone. It continued to rake it in at the tills, making about $1 billion as of Aug. 7.
The doll maker, however, isn’t doing quite as well this year. It reported that gross billings for its doll declined by 23% to $459.6 million in the first half of 2023 from the same period last year.
Export processing zone
Mattel has had ups and downs in production, profit and management since it introduced the Barbie line in the United States in 1959.
It established its first factory in the Philippines in 1976, becoming one of the pioneer companies that put up manufacturing plants in the first export processing zone (EPZ) in the country in Mariveles, Bataan.
The EPZs were intended “to create jobs, facilitate the transfer of technology, increase foreign exchange earnings, and enhance competitiveness.” The establishment of EPZs in Mariveles was proposed in 1967 by Bataan Rep. Pablo Roman in a bill that was signed into law by President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. two years later.
But it was not until a few years after Marcos declared martial law in 1972 that the Philippines saw the rise of the first EPZ. Under the martial law regime, foreign-owned factories at the zone were given special investment and export incentives, such as tax cuts, to encourage investors to relocate their manufacturing plants to the Philippines.
A fire that destroyed Mattel’s factory in California, a series of dock strikes, and management problems that affected its production prompted the company to look for a friendly location where it could make its doll with cheap labor. The Philippines under the Marcos dictatorship became attractive.
But as it turned out, the Philippines was no Barbieland for both Mattel and its workers.
Despite the strike ban imposed under Marcos’ Presidential Decree No. 823, more than 3,000 Mattel workers protested wage disagreements in 1981, according to Mary Rogers in her book “Barbie Culture.” The Mariveles plant was later hit by rising costs and more labor unrest, and Mattel decided to close it.
PD 823 was issued in November 1975, a month after workers at La Tondeña went on strike for just compensation and permanent employment. It was a historic blow against the Marcos dictatorship and was the labor movement’s first act of open defiance to his martial rule.
The strikes at La Tondeña and later at Mattel and other companies in the Bataan EPZ occurred against the backdrop of a severe economic downturn in the early 1980s. After the assassination of Marcos’ political rival, former senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., at the then Manila International Airport on Aug. 21, 1983, the Philippines suffered two consecutive years of recession.
Until 2003, according to economists, the Philippines was unable to recover from the economic crisis that gripped the latter part of the Marcos regime. Mattel was in the midst of the political and economic turbulence that rocked the country in the dictatorship’s final years.
After closing the Mariveles plant, Mattel opened two new factories—one in Cainta, Rizal, and another in Pasig City—in 1985. But, faced with persistent profit losses, it closed down its Cainta plant and laid off some 1,800 workers in 1987, a year after the Marcos dictatorship was toppled by the People Power Revolution.
Mattel workers believed that the decision to close the Cainta factory was “drastic and arbitrary.” They barricaded the plant to stop the company from removing factory equipment and production materials, but the labor department slapped them with a cease-and-desist order.
In 1988, Mattel Philippines’ then president, J.D. Harper, announced that it would close the Pasig factory and completely stop production in the country. He cited the “worldwide situation” and the “loss of confidence in our ability to manufacture toys in the Philippines.”
A spokesperson for the company at the time said the shutdown was prompted by “a series of union and labor force actions that hampered our ability to operate.”
The Los Angeles Times reported at the time that Mattel was dealing with “rowdy unionists who can’t be kept in line” and was worried about the communist insurgency.
Mattel moved its production to other Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and China. But the labor conditions were not much better for the workers there, especially in China.
According to a report by the independent labor monitor China Labor Watch, workers who produced toys for Mattel and other companies like Hasbro and Disney were too often made to work overtime, received “unjust wages,” and were exposed to dangerous chemicals. There were no independent unions to protect workers in China, an aggressive competitor in the global market, forcing workers to either resign or endure dismal conditions in its factories, the labor monitor said.
Some people say Filipinos should just enjoy the things that they have, like this special doll and the fantasy that continues to veil the memory of the struggles of the labor movement.
But Barbie’s story in the Philippines is not all glamour and glitter. After all, the real world is not and will never be Barbieland.
Julienne Maxine Espinosa, a third-year journalism student at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, is an intern at CoverStory.ph.