"Workers in China sew the plastic beads for $4.25 a day, or about $85 a month. Local krewes contract with U.S. bead distributors to order customized beads to sell to individual members, who toss the beads from the parade floats. In short, the production of Mardi Gras beads, products, souvenirs, and memorabilia is no longer the province of local craft skills geared toward local consumption; it has been appropriated, reimagined, and retooled for mass production and mass consumption," writes Kevin Fox Gotham, author of a book on New Orleans tourism.
(via Sociological Images)
For a terrific insight into who actually makes the beads, look for the documentary Mardi Gras: Made In China. (See trailer above.)