Jilin tragedy highlights lack of legal enforcement and lack of a proper trade union

China’s Work Safety Law stipulates that factories should make sure that fire exits are always ready to use and clearly signed. This was tragically not the case at the Baoyuanfeng poultry plant in the north-eastern province of Jilin where 120 workers died in a fire this week.

The fire doors were locked, the factory said, to prevent workers from walking around and disrupting production. Some employees said that as 70 percent of the workers were women, the doors were locked to prevent them from going to the toilet too often.

China’s law on fire prevention states that that both employers and the trade union should educate workers on fire prevention. And factories that are likely to be exposed to fire hazards, should provide fire safety training to its employees and organize regular fire drills.

Firstly; it is not clear if this factory with more than 1,000 employees even had a trade union. Secondly; none of the workers had received any fire safety training despite the fact that this factory (like many other poultry businesses) used flammable and combustible liquid ammonia in the production process. Workers who were lucky enough to escape the fire which began just as the 6.00.am shift was starting described scenes of chaos as they ran to the exits only to find them locked.

Some observers say the factory management simply did not have fire safety awareness and did not anticipate that their “simple” way of factory management would result in the loss of over one hundred lives. However the 325 deaths, including 288 students, in an auditorium fire in Xinjiang in 1994 was also very much related to closed fire exits, according to official accounts. Back then out of the eight fire exits, only one was operational.

Sadly, government officials in Jilin took a more active stance in dealing with potential social unrest in the aftermath of the tragedy than in overseeing work safety at the factory before the disaster. Jilin Party Secretary Wang Rulin stressed on the day of the accident that while the government should set up a work team for each victim’s family and make sure they are properly compensated; the municipal government and other departments should make detailed arrangement to prevent “mass incidents.”

“We should enhance the guidance of public opinion and accept people’s supervision; we should enhance both service and guidance towards the media; we should enhance management over social media; we should prevent malicious speculation and the spread of rumors; we should prevent anything that misleads public opinion and disturbs social stability.”

The media, probably following the order of “properly guiding public opinion”, started to emphasize the government’s intense rescue effort, the mayor’s sincere self-criticism and the severe punishment imposed on the factory management.

We don’t yet know how much compensation the victims’ families will get and who will pay the bill. Lawyers gave a conservative estimate of 600,000 yuan for each victim’s family, and the amount may vary depending on whether workers have elderly and children at home. The amount is usually decided by local government’s negotiation with the victims’ relatives and paid by the factory if workers don’t have work injury insurance.

There have been four workplace fire disasters and seven work accidents in the past week leading to at least 149 deaths. Obviously the current system of fire prevention and work safety is not working. Rather than repeating old clichés like enhancing implementation and supervision, it might be more effective to encourage and allow workers to be involved in the dialogue and play an active role in supervising fire safety equipment and safety measures. After all, they are the people who are likely to care most.

As a matter of fact, China’s Work Safety Law has one specific chapter on workers’ rights and obligations. Workers have the right to know the potential hazards in the workplace and the preventative and emergency measures in place. They are also entitled to make safety suggestions to the management and to report and sue factories for safety violations.

But in reality, workers seldom know about such rights, nor do they have the power to bargain with the management on their salary and social benefits, a function that the trade union should play.

Poultry workers in China are known to suffer from extremely bad work conditions with air and noise pollution, exposure to high temperatures, unpleasant smells, poultry blood, feces, and disease. Working in the poultry industry also poses a significant challenge to the mental health of workers. However, their salary, working and living conditions rarely attracts public attention compared to workers on the assembly line. For example, 48-year-old Cong Yanrong who worked at Baoyuanfeng with her husband said each of them earned less than 2,000 yuan per month at the factory.

It is about time that the trade union did a much better job in representing workers interests in the food processing industry and that government officials started taking their duty of oversight seriously.

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