* At 6.08pm, on 28 July in Hebei province massive explosions ripped through the Guoxi Fireworks Factory in Xinji city, Hebei Province killing at least 29 people and injuring many more. The cause of the blast was reported to be the ignition of gunpowder used in production which had been spread out to dry in the sun. Four people have reportedly been detained in connection with the accident.
China Labour Bulletin managed to interview several officials and workers at the factory. According to interviews, there were some 169 workers in the factory at the time of the explosion, the youngest being a 15 year old girl who had been working at the factory for two years. The factory did not provide any accident insurance to its workers and no contracts were signed. The workers were paid in piece work with most workers doing at least ten hours a day with no rest day. The workers also told CLB that there was no trade union at the factory although when CLB asked the Chairman of the local city trade union at Xinji City, we were told that a union had in fact been set up at the factory in 2000. The city union also informed us that they had no plans to claim compensation on behalf of the workers but were assisting in the rescue work at the time.
Many of the injured were taken to the Xinji Hospital for treatment. The President of the Xinji Hospital was reported in the local media as stating that all victims would have to pay for their medical treatment. However, after the news reports came out, he was quickly removed from his post by the local authorities who emphasized that all the victims would receive free treatment for their injuries.
According to reports, police detained two deputy heads of the factory and two supervision workers for their role in the blast. Police also stated that the local government had issued a temporary ban on the processing of explosives the previous week due to the heat wave affecting much of China, but to get round this restriction the factory had been operating in the morning and evening.
In the aftermath of the accident, the Hebei provincial government held an emergency meting on production safety in Xinji on 30 July. An Emergency Notice on further strengthening of safe production of fireworks and firecrackers was issued and all firework production enterprises were to be closed down pending a comprehensive investigation.
* In the morning of 31 July, an explosion swept through the Jingxi Fireworks Factory in Munhou County,Fujian province reportedly killing at least four people, including a four year old girl, and injuring another 36 people. One person is still missing. According to reports, the blast shattered windows in nearby houses, damaging 94 homes and causing the whole factory to collapse. After the explosion, the factory manager disappeared and police are reportedly still searching for him.
In response to the explosion in Fujian, the provincial authorities announced the suspension of all firework production and launched a safety inspection. The head of Minhou County, the county police chief and other local officials have all been reportedly suspended from work after the accident.
* On 1 August, the Tonglu Fireworks Factory in Zhejiang Province exploded, luckily causing no deaths as the staff had all been ordered to take temporary leave due to the heat wave - ten villagers however were injured by flying glass. The 300 strong workforce had been told to halt production on 31 July and were not in the factory when the warehouse caught fire after apparently being struck by lightning.
* On 3 August, fireworks exploded at a fireworks factory in Dongguan, Dafang County in Guizhou Province killing at least 2 people and injuring another 10.
After these accidents, provincial authorities in Jiangxi province ordered a temporary ban on firework production until the weather had returned to lower temperatures.
The explosions came just days after the State Administration of Work Safety held a press conference in Beijing which outlined the situation in the first half of 2003. The Press Conference itself usually aimed at highlighting good news - in fact revealed that while the situation in some provinces had remained relatively stable, as a whole, the number of serious fatal accidents in some industries had increased despite statement that the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) had taken vigorous measures to advance the building of the safety supervision and administration system.
In the first quarter of 2003, the number of serious fatal accidents had increased over 2002, and in response, the State Council reportedly studied the specific issue of work safety and the General Office of the State Council issued special urgent notices on further intensifying work safety. On 8 April, the State Council convened a national teleconference on work safety. At the teleconference, Mr. Huang Ju, the permanent vice-premier of the State Council, requested that governments at all levels and every department concerned should fully realize the extreme importance of work safety. Huang Ju stressed that, in view of the current weak links, effective measures should be taken in terms of organization and leadership, the working system, the supervision structures and means and methods in order to guarantee that every aspect of work safety is fully carried out.
The Peoples Republic of China is the worlds biggest producer of fireworks. Firework factories are often small and locally owned, employing young people and often outsourcing production to small workshops in closely packed residential areas. Firework production is frequently organized around village-level enterprises that subcontract assembly work to local village residents who work at home. Nearly all the accidents are explosions followed by fire and affect those at the actual accident site and also, more often than not, those living nearby.
Although some factories pride themselves in producing high quality fireworks conforming to international safety specifications for export, little thought is often given to the safety of workers in the factories. The situation of work safety in the fireworks industry remains appalling and there are regular explosions which kill and maim dozens of people. In addition, because a great deal of firework production often involves child labour and takes place in the homes of individual villagers, the accidents often also kill and maim children who either live in the homes involved or work in the small workshops.
In March 2001 there was an explosion at the Fanglin village school in Wanzai, Jiangxi province, which killed at least 41 children [possibly 60] and three teachers. Initially the government claimed that it was an attack on the school by a madman and the central authorities, including the then Premier Zhu Rongji, denied reports that it was caused by the production of fireworks by the children. However, villagers continued to press for the truth and stated that the teachers had been forcing the children to make fireworks for the past three years in order to pay for their tuition and that Wanzai County schools had been collaborating with local firework factories since 1998, and pupils were openly put to work in classrooms. The authorities finally apologized and acknowledged that the explosion was not the work of a suicidal maniac as they had earlier stated, [going so far as to name the man, one of the dead victims of the blast], but was due to the children producing fireworks at the school.
The case and the governments denial of illegal firework production by the schoolchildren received widespread coverage both in China and overseas, and led to the British National Campaign for Firework Safety to call for a blanket ban on the import of all fireworks from China until the European Commission President and the Health and Safety Executive of the European Commission had visited China to ensure proper health and safety measures in Chinese firework factories and that no child labour is used in the production of fireworks. CLB is not aware of any such visits having occurred. However, reports of widespread child labour in firework production continue to persist. The recent explosion in Hebei which killed workers as young as 15 shows clearly how child labour is still used in the production of fireworks.
The response of the government of Jiangxi province where small-scale firework production is extremely widespread to the problem was to announce a policy of closing down the firework industry in the province over the next two years. The fireworks sector in Jiangxi is enormous and it is estimated that over 200,000 people are officially employed in over 9,000 factories in Jiangxi. This figure does not include the hundreds more unofficial and semi-legal village and household workshops. The announced closure of all factories led to many critics asking why the provincial government was adopting such a blunt instrument in response to the accident and why it was not instead looking at the causes of the accidents as opposed to simply halting all production and closing down a major source of employment and revenue for Jiangxi Province [Jiangxi is one of the key areas for firework production and some estimates state that Jiangxi earns more than 30 million Yuan each year in taxes]. The likely result of the policy may well be that production is forced into illegal underground workshops that are even harder to regulate. Indeed, recent reports appear to suggest that Jiangxi is rethinking its ban.
In much the same way, in the aftermath of these recent accidents, the local and provincial authorities have imposed temporary bans on production and called for safety inspections. However these are the same type of measures that have been put forward in response to similar accidents for many years now, with little substantial improvement in the safety levels in firework production. [The issue of the paucity of effective solutions proposed by the central and provincial governments in response to industrial accidents is discussed at length in the Absence of Rigor and the failure of Implementation: Occupational Health and Safety in China and in the recent report on safety in the coal mining industry].
In the past few years several cities in China have introduced bans on the sale and display of fireworks and firecrackers which has also led to an increase of illegally produced and sold firecrackers. It has been reported that in the last ten months of 2002, Beijing police alone seized 4 million firecrackers, worth 60,000 Yuan (US$7,250). Most of them had been produced illegally in private small workshops in and around Beijing, often containing too much gunpowder and with no quality control causing more injuries during their display. Last year, according to official reports, more than 260 people were injured and 180 fires occurred in Beijing because of firecracker explosions. Several cities and provinces have now repealed these bans due to pressure from residents and concerns over the quality of illegally made and sold firecrackers.
1 The Chinese authorities must do their utmost to ensure that no child labour is employed in firework factories or workshops. China has signed the ILO Minimum Age Convention and the U.N. Convention on the Rights on the Child. There are also a number of national regulations that ban child labour and restrict the areas where young adults can work. These include relevant provisions in the Chinese Labour Law, the Law on the Protection of Womens Rights and Interests, the Law on the Protection of Minors, Regulations on the Prohibition of Child Labour, and the Notice on the Prohibition of Child Labour. Despite this plethora of laws and regulations that outlaw child labour, child labour is increasing. In many instances, punishments for factories found using child labour is simply not enough to outweigh the advantages of using children. There are also numerous ways employers can avoid penalties. There is a pressing need for uniform and concrete enforcement of existing legislation banning child labour under 16 and the use of young adults in heavy or dangerous industries. This will include the need for increased punishments for employers who break national legislation. China already has adequate laws forbidding child labour but these laws must be accompanied by adequate enforcement and effective action.
2 The Public Security Department and other official bodies which issue production permits to firework factories must assume an inescapable responsibility for accidents which occur in enterprises due to lack of safety and proper procedures they have given permits to.
3 Although we welcome the fact that in the case of the Xinji factory explosion, the government expressly stated that medical expenses will be borne by the government and not by the victims, it is the responsibility of each enterprise to take out proper medical insurance for their employees, according to Chinese Labour Law, and not for the medical care of occupational accident victims to be passed onto the taxpayer. The local authorities must ensure that enterprises take out such insurance; they should investigate cases where this does not happen, and should ensure that the relevant staff or departments responsible are properly penalized, including the application of criminal charges where relevant.
<4 In statements made after the recent accident in Hebei, the authorities stated that the chief problem in improving safety in the industry was that of the lack of implementation of safety measures. CLB agrees with this analysis, but believes that a knee-jerk reaction to industrial accidents does not serve to improve the situation. Indeed, the common policy adopted by most provinces and local authorities of halting production after an accident, and then resuming production after inspection shows few results. The method appears to be facing up to the challenge of improving actual safety standards, but in fact is often used as a short term measure to cover up misconduct, or to contain misconduct or a specific problem in the particular factory, which then allows for general production with the same standards of safety to resume once the media spotlight has been removed. Indeed, after such closure and rectification many enterprises, driven by the exorbitant profits available, continue to produce fireworks illegally which increases the problems of supervision and management and paves the way for future accidents.
5 After an accident has occurred, the administrative and criminal responsibility of officials must be investigated and penalties applied. However, the dismissal or administrative punishment of local officials will not solve the whole problem. What is need is a thorough review of the production safety system which currently issues directives from the top and central levels with little regard for implementation at a local level. Additionally, supervisory units are not only responsible for the supervision of safety procedures, but also for the administration of safety procedures, which makes them unaccountable and open to corruption.
6 In many of the disputes and accidents that CLB investigates, we discover that the majority of workers are unaware of any union existing in their enterprise. Despite official claims that such unions do exist, it is obvious that if they exist they are simply not functioning as a proper union and are not carrying out their role according to the Chinese trade union law. Under this law, if the union does not carry out its duties, its staff can be dismissed or punished. According to the Trade Union law, the Labour Law and the Safe Production Law, the trade union has a supervisory role to play in ensuring work safety. However, the All China Federation of Trade Unions is not an independent trade union and workers are denied the right to freely elect their representatives. The ACFTU is not accountable to the workers, but to the Communist Party. The absence of an independent trade union and the involvement of the workers in ensuring and promoting health and safety in Chinas industries are directly responsible in part for the appalling health and safety record in China.
7 In a similar way to our proposals for worker led health and safety committees in other industries, namely coal mining, we also believe that villagers occupational health and safety committees (VOC) could be a potential solution to the continuing problem of monitoring and improving safety levels. Village committees could monitor safety measures of village-level work units and companies responsible for fireworks and firecracker production. The VOC members should be directly elected by village residents who would then elect a county-level community OSH committee (COC). Finally a tripartite sector-level OSH coordinating committee (OCC) should be set up composed of government officials from relevant departments, industry representatives and village residents elected by the local Community OSH Committee.
[For more details please see CLBs detailed Proposals to Improve Occupational Health and Safety in China]
11 September 2003