Daniel Bardsley (Foreign Correspondent)
December 5, 2011
BEIJING: An accident at a chemical plant in eastern China that killed more than a dozen workers was nothing out of the ordinary in a country infamous for its lack of workplace safety.
Four died immediately in the blast at a melamine factory in Shandong province last month, while 10 more were pronounced dead at hospital.
Dozens died after an explosion at a mine in south-western China a few weeks ago, while a search through the news archives revealed countless other deadly accidents over the past month or so.
China's workplace death rate is many times higher than those of other developed countries.
In the United Kingdom, for example, there were 171 worker fatalities between April 2010 and March 2011.
When population size is taken into account, China's workplace death rate is more than 21 times higher than the UK's.
Last year, 79,552 people died in work-related accidents in China, an average of 218 people a day, official figures show.
Many believe the real death rate to be much higher. Omana George, the programme coordinator with the Hong Kong pressure group Asia Monitor Resource Centre, described it as "the tip of the iceberg".
"The figures reflected officially are not the real figures," she said.
China has grown dramatically during the past three decades, but hundreds of thousands of people have died in the process.
Nationally, the authorities have indicated that they want improvements, saying that between now and 2015 death rates should drop 10 per cent a year.
Li Yizhong, previously the head of the State Administration of Workplace Safety, once criticised owners of coal mines for exchanging "life and blood for coal and high profits" and described one mine as "licensed by devils from hell".
Yet among local authorities tasked with enforcing rules there is "almost complete disregard of safety standards", according to Geoffrey Crothall from China Labour Bulletin, another Hong Kong campaign organisation.
"They have no interest or no desire to enforce the relevant rules and regulations," he said.
Part of the reason for this apparent apathy is local officials do not want to push industry into other parts of China.
They simply do not want to scare them off, said Mr Crothall. Also, he said authorities lacked the staff to carry out inspections.
Officially sanctioned unions are seen as toothless, while independent unions have been banned by a Communist Party suspicious of other sources of power.
Among those who have seen the consequences of poor workplace safety is Chris Chan, an assistant professor at the City University of Hong Kong, whose research has taken him to Shenzhen, the city where China's economic boom began and which remains a manufacturing hub.
There, he said, many town or district-level hospitals were full of industrial-injury patients, mostly young male migrant workers from the poorer parts of China.
"Many injured workers work for small or unregistered workshops, which are called 'black factories' by the workers. The machines and facilities are old ... the accident rate is therefore very high, but is not well reflected in the official figures," he said.
"Some of the factory owners will disappear after an accident."
Long hours and fatigue are blamed for many accidents.
Yet China's official figures have been improving. Last year's death rate was more than a third less than that of five years earlier, while in the first nine months of 2011, deaths dropped 11.8 per cent.
Ms George is sceptical there have been genuine improvements, mirroring the doubts campaigners have expressed about China's falling road accident death rates.
There have been reports that after some coal mine accidents, even other miners may be kept in the dark about deaths, while local officials are put under pressure to report improvements in fatality rates.
But there are signs for optimism. Mr Crothall said awareness had improved in the past decade, and it was more common now for coal mine bosses to talk to workers about safety.
Also, Mr Chan cited campaigns by non-governmental organisations as having helped improve safety standards at some factories, especially those producing for western markets.
Some factories have, he said, set up occupational health and safety committees, with worker representatives.
However, there has also been a trend towards self-regulation that "is actually quite dangerous", said Ms George. All agree more must be done to reduce further China's devastating workplace accident toll.
"It's still got a very long way to go before the Chinese workplace is safe," said Mr Crothall.