One can almost hear the question being asked over and over again: when will work-safety improve in China? And the answer never changes; nobody knows.
A dust explosion was all it took to kill around 70 people in the recent industrial accident in the city of Kunshan, just 70 kilometers from Shanghai, in Jiangsu Province. According to the Wall Street Journal, a heap of dust that the local safety supervisors failed to remove caused the explosion in the metal-polishing plant. The blast killed 44 instantly, and the death continued to rising as the other victims were taken to the local hospital. It ripped two giant holes in the facility walls, made ceilings collapse, and scattered metal and glass fragments as far as 50 meters away.
Combustible dust is well known to experts as being a massive industrial hazard, and has already killed thousands of workers in factories across the nation.
This week’s accident comes during one of the peaks of China’s manufacturing activity, and shows one of the darker side of Chinese labor. However, it is only the latest piece in a wider–perhaps too wide–puzzle. The whole matter of worker safety in China is not dust per se, but more about a whole host of industrial accidents in China that keep piling up, and ripping a whole, often literally, in the nation. The figures are simply astounding.
Official data shows that industrial accidents in China are decreasing by 10 percent each year, but the numbers still fail to impress: there were over 70,000 casualties due to lack of work safety in 2010, 2011, and 2012, with an average of 200 deaths a day. In the first half of 2014 yearly casualties have already reached the 30,000 mark (and counting), thus showing a significant decrease in accidents. The National reports that, even when the population size is taken into account, China’s workplace death rate is still 21 times higher than in the United Kingdom. And these figures do not include those missed, but simply the official figures.
The most outstanding fact is that casualties involve basically every sector of the Chinese economy. Take the relatively quiet and presumably injury free health-care system: Wen Jianmin, a doctor and outspoken member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference noted that:
“Since 2001, 30 doctors and nurses have been killed by patients and their relatives. In 2014, there have already been seven attacks in hospitals across the country. We haven’t seen similar situations in other parts of the world.”
The reason? Families unsatisfied by the service provided by doctors. It should come as no surprise that many Chinese hospitals are gearing up with their own security forces with the special task of protecting doctors from assaults.
Industrial accidents have a long record too, going hand in hand with China’s emergence as a world leading manufacturer. Explosions, fires, old machines, and fatigue after working long hours are a common deadly mixture in the Middle Kingdom.
Before this week’s explosion, the last accident to grab national headlines was last year’s tragedy in Dehui’s Mishazi plant. There, a fire broke out in Jilin Baoyuanfeng poultry factory claiming as many as 119 lives and wounding many others. The problem with the Baoyuefeng poultry plant was not its old machinery, or its lack of hygiene. As a matter of fact, the factory was only four years old. Nevertheless, the supervisors regularly locked most of the exits so the workers would not wander around and would focus on working instead. Well, they can’t stroll around anymore. When ammonia leaked and a fire started, workers panicked, banging at the locked doors. The New Yorker reported on the incident.
“The lights went out as the fire spread; parts of the plant exploded; workers, scrambling in the dark, tried to navigate the prefabricated building’s narrow warrens, and found that some of the exits were locked; others, clamoring to escape, fell into a pool of water.”
But the deadly icing on this industrial Chinese cake is mining accidents. The country is the world’s biggest coal producer, and its economy still heavily relies on coal. However, it also maintains the highest casualty rates in the world due to lax safety precautions, making mining in China one of the deadliest jobs in the entire world.
Just to give one example, in March 2013 over 20 miners were killed or went missing after an unspecified “accident” in the southern province of Guizhou. Not to mention the 2008 Shanxi mudslide, which caused the collapse of an unlicensed mine landfill in Xiangfen county, killing 277, with four missing.
One is forced ask the question: just when will work-safety improve in China?
According to official sources, China is on the right path. Official figures claim casualty rates are decreasing by 10 percent every year. In the beginning of 2014 China passed another reform of its workplace safety regulations, showing commitment on the issue and looking to exacerbate punishments for safety malpractices. The maximum fee was raised to 1,000,000 RMB. Yang Dongliang, director of the State Administration of Work Safety, told The Global Times that: “The bill asks the work safety regulator to set up a blacklist to deter big companies that do not care about large fines,” adding that information on serious offenders can now be published and shared with regulators of investment, land use, and securities as well as banks.
The central government keeps approving new bills and reforms on workplace accidents, but, according to Geoffrey Crothall of China Labor Bulletin, that doesn’t impact outcomes very much. He told VOA News that the Chinese laws would actually ensure worker safety but they are simply not enforced.
“The explosion at the factory in Kunshan illustrates once again that although there are many laws and regulations outlining health and safety standards in the workplace those standards are not properly enforced by local authorities.”
Western companies with Chinese suppliers don’t supervise local factories, while local authorities don’t insist on enforcing Chinese regulations. Crothall supposes they are afraid of scaring investors, and often try to hush-up rumors of accidents. The picture gets even murkier when one bears in mind that China only has one state-driven trade union.
After the Kunshan blast, some workers have demanded more rigid inspections and respect for workers’ safety. In some factories workers have demanded that workers themselves be granted permission to supervise safety regulations, to replace those “not doing their job.” Perhaps this is the blast of enlightenment needed on the Chinese workers’ side before there is another big blast that is all-too-real.