In the month of July, in the midst of a heatwave affecting several provinces, Zhejiang became one of the hottest regions in China, with most local weather stations recording record temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius for many days running. The Shaoxing Evening Post reported that since July, the extreme heat had killed more than 30 people in the urban area of Shaoxing City alone. The report also stated that more than half of the deaths were caused by lengthy outdoor work and that most of the victims were migrant workers from other provinces.
When CLB attempted to speak to some of those workers affected by heatstroke and to find out how many people had died, the hospital staff at the Shaoxing General hospital told CLB that it was not their place to give out details freely and stated that it was up to the government to give information on the incidents. However, in another interview, a hospital doctor from the Shaoxing No 2 Hospital told CLB that almost all of the victims of sunstroke were migrant workers, although their place of work was not officially recorded. Three migrant workers had died at the Shaoxing No.2 Hospital.
According to an official at the Shaoxing Labour Bureau, most people who have fallen ill are migrant workers who are involved in the construction industry and working for private companies installing air conditioners. Detailed information is difficult to obtain as most are working for private subcontracted enterprises. Many thousands of migrant workers work in the construction industry, often without proper work contracts or insurance and in some cases on illegal projects that have not been approved. Most work on sites with little safety equipment and accidents are commonplace.
The deaths of at least three migrant workers [reports in the Chinese media put the deaths at 15]and the illness of scores more in Shaoxing City alone reveal the extent of the problem currently facing outdoor workers. Workers throughout China suffer from a staggeringly high number of occupational deaths and diseases, however migrant workers face additional problems. Many are refused medical insurance and pension benefits, many work in dangerous industries doing jobs for very low wages and many more work without contracts or official registration. When working conditions are unsafe or when problems like this arise, migrant workers have very few avenues to pursue redress and little power to change their working environment.
The Zejiang provincial Trade union did issue a notice outlining the dangers of heatstroke and the possibility of fatalities. However, despite the rhetoric and the apparent concern for workers, especially those undertaking manual labour and work outside, when CLB interviewed the Shaoxing General Trade Union, we were told that the deaths were nothing to do with union business and it was not the responsibility of the union to get involved. As the deaths were not categorized as industrial accidents, but as deaths from a medical condition heat-stroke the union was not dealing with the problem but referred us instead to the labour bureau.
However, the methods used by the local and central authorities to deal with work safety and the improvement of working conditions remain essentially ineffective. Although the situation of work safety has been described by top officials as being grim, there is little effective action taken to stop the tide of accidents and deaths relating to working in unsafe conditions or working overly long hours. Instead, generally in response to yet another major and usually avoidable accident or issue, the authorities pass a flurry of regulations urging the promotion of work safety as an urgent task, and yet nothing is usually followed up. In the weeks that pass, conditions which might have improved slightly often fall back to previous levels of health and safety.
Indeed the labour bureau informed CLB that it believed its role in the current situation was to distribute documents which circulate to the lower levels step by step. Although the local labour bureaus should play a role in tackling the problem, it is ineffective to simply circulate local regulations and notices on the situation. Instead what is needed in the short term are concrete actions to halt over work in extreme conditions as well as a monitoring system of work places and workers to ensure that the guidelines are adhered to. This will involve some level of punishment for enterprises which force their workers to work long shifts outside.
In the long run, what is needed is the creation of work place health and safety committees which, despite obvious obstacles (such as training,worker inertia etc), will ensure that working conditions are changed from the bottom up. There is an ever widening gap between the regulations on health and safety and the actual practice in many enterprise or industries and this can only be remedied when the workers are given the right to effect positive change in their workplace and ensure that their employers abide by the regulations on health and safety.
Click here for a report in the Zhejiang Workers Daily which discusses the notice from the Zhejiang Provincial General Trade Union.