Thursday, June 10, 2004

Deaths, health and safety and labour rights in China

Almost every day, and certainly at least once a week, I read about people dying in China in an accident in a factory, or the collapse of a building or bridge. Today there were two of these tragedies on the news wire: an explosion in a fireworks factory in Jiangxi, killing sixteen, and the collapse of a bridge in Liaoning, killing an unknown number of people.

China firecracker blast kills 16 (BBC article)

Sixteen women workers have been killed in an explosion at a fireworks factory in eastern China's Jiangxi province, the official Xinhua agency says.

At least three other workers were hurt in the blast, the cause of which has not been determined.

The blast in the city of Pingxiang reportedly scattered gunpowder and left a crater measuring 80 square metres.

China's government has tried to crack down on illegal and unsafe firework factories.

Many of the workers are poverty-stricken villagers who endure great health risks.

Attempts to regulate the firework industry were made three years ago, when an explosion in a village in Jiangxi province killed 42 people, many children amongst them.

China is the world's largest manufacturer of fireworks.

Road bridge collapses in China (BBC article)

A bridge has collapsed in north-eastern China sending at least three vehicles plummeting into the river beneath.

There is no information on the number of casualties, but two people have swum ashore after surviving the fall, according to the Xinhua news agency


The director of public security at Tianzhuangtai suggested heavy truck traffic may have led to the collapse.

But our correspondent in Beijing, Louisa Lim, says corruption in the building sector and poor quality control have in the past been blamed for such disasters.

The BBC's correspondent is right but could have said more. Chinese people are dying and suffering injuries practically every day because of corruption, and also because there are no independent labour unions in China and very little scrutiny of government by non-governmental campaigning organisations. The first article may be correct in saying that the government has tried to crack down on illegal factories, but workers are not safe while they are prevented from organising to fight dangers and exploitation themselves.

There have been large labour protests in several regions of China, suppressed fairly brutally, with activists jailed, for example: "In May 2003, after charges such as contacting the foreign press and trials lacking basic procedural safeguards, Liaoning province labor activists Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang were given seven and four-year sentences respectively." (from Human Rights Watch China overview) They have since been reported to be in poor health.

When China's leaders visit other countries - and when our leaders go to China - we have to make sure the focus is put on their utter disregard of labour rights as well as other human rights like freedom of speech and movement.

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