Rampant corruption is undermining safety standards in the mainland's toy factories, which feed 80 per cent of global demand. According to Hong Kong owners of factories across the border, auditors employed to enforce standards are receiving bribes to turn a blind eye to the increasingly stringent safety standards demanded by foreign retailers. Beijing is in talks with industry bodies including the Hong Kong Toys Council and the Toy Manufacturers' Association of Hong Kong about initiatives to prevent the corruption getting out of hand, say manufacturers, speaking on condition of anonymity. Some Chinese-made toys were ordered off store shelves in the United States three years ago because of lead paint and magnets that could be swallowed. Such problems led to tougher benchmarks being imposed. Corruption between factory owners and auditors is so bad that the International Council of Toy Industries' Care Foundation - a worldwide industry programme to promote ethical manufacturing - has sacked about 20 of the 145 auditors so far this year, or 14 per cent of the total. Ian Anderson, vice-president of the foundation's Asian operations, said that in one case an entire team of auditors was found to be corrupt. 'Bribery and wages are not the only problems,' Anderson said yesterday at a seminar. 'We have found child labour cases every month.' Corruption has taken a turn for the worse since the recall of toys from manufacturers such as Mattel in 2007. The recall prompted the ICTI to roll out its 'Care' voluntary programme to ensure safe and humane workplaces. About 2,300 factories employing 1.7 million workers worldwide have enrolled in the ICTI programme, a set of best practices that are recognised in the US and in several European countries. However, the increasingly tough standards are causing problems. Lawrence Chan Wing-luen, chairman of toymaker Wynnewood Corp, said one British retailer was so stringent about safety hazards that he required that workers not be allowed to wear any accessories or jewellery during the production process to avoid contaminating toys. 'The safety requirements are so tough that perhaps it's safer to eat a toy' than food, Chan said. Chan, who has been in the industry for 37 years, said some manufacturers had been tempted to ensure positive reports by bribing auditors rather than improving conditions in their factories. In one case earlier this month, an auditor asked for a cash bribe of HK$120,000 in return for passing a consignment of toys. Chan said any delay in the shipment could have cost the factory owner millions of dollars. 'It takes two to tango. Why should factory owners help create millionaire auditors and promote more corruption?' he said. 'I strongly condemn this short-sighted practice.' Auditors, who are hired by toy retailers and brand owners, have become the most powerful people on the factory floor, leading to complaints that they have too much influence. One manufacturer said that during an on-site audit of wages and working hours, an auditing team stormed into the human resources department and ordered staff to leave at once because they had to inspect computer records and drawers. He said auditors were even searching rubbish bins for evidence, and interrogating workers. 'We are manufacturers, not murderers,' he said. 'We are naked in front of auditors, but are auditors transparent to us?' One producer was frustrated at the central government's decision to ignore his complaint of bribery on the grounds that the bribe in question did not meet the threshold of at least 50,000 yuan (HK$57,400). Lawyer Benny Kong said auditors should be subject to legal liability for their reports instead of manufacturers being solely responsible for the outcome of the report. Hong Kong owners make up the majority of the estimated 3,000 toy exporters across the border. The number has dwindled from a peak of about 8,500 in 2007 as the industry grappled with toy recalls, safety issues and the global financial crisis. Last year, the mainland exported US$7.78 billion worth of toys, 10 per cent down on 2008.