SCMP: Deadly poultry plant fire should spark action on workplace safety in China

CLB contributed this commentary to the South China Morning Post. Copyright remains with the original publisher,

Geoffrey Crothall

11 June 2013

Long before China's much vaunted "economic miracle" of the 1990s and 2000s, there was a popular saying in the country's dangerous professions, such as coal mining, that "everyone is responsible for work safety".

Today in China it can often seem that no one is responsible for work safety. In the aftermath of an inferno that killed 120 workers at the Baoyuanfeng poultry processing plant in Jilin last week, local government officials seem more concerned with quelling potential social unrest than reflecting on why so many died in the first place and trying to effect change.

The mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers who died all did so because the laws designed to protect them were not enforced by local government officials; they died because managers locked the fire escapes and ignored the obvious risks of using combustible and flammable materials on site; they died because if there was a trade union at the factory, it did nothing to improve safety standards; and they died because they had never once received any training on fire prevention or what to do in the event of fire.

Moreover, they died because despite so many horrendous blazes in China, a lack of basic fire safety measures remains the norm rather than the exception. Tragically, no one thought the situation at Baoyuanfeng was anything out of the ordinary. Indeed, in the same week as the Baoyuanfeng disaster, there were two more fires in the same northeastern region of China - at an oil refinery and a granary.

There is no doubt that for many young factory workers on the mainland, especially those in the prosperous coastal cities, pay and working conditions are certainly better than those their parents had to endure. Production line workers in Shenzhen can earn 3,500 yuan (HK$4,400) a month with overtime, which is enough for daily necessities, the occasional night out with friends and even a little left over to put away for a rainy day.

For many workers in smaller inland cities and those in the northeast, wages are a lot lower. The predominately middle-aged women with families to support who worked at Baoyuanfeng reportedly earned just 2,000 yuan each month after working long hours in appalling conditions; high temperatures, deafening noise, noxious smells and exposure to chicken blood and excrement.

And they are not alone: sanitation workers in China often toil for 365 days a year in the blistering sun, freezing cold and torrential rain, clearing other people's trash from the streets. And for this, they are lucky to earn the minimum wage, often not much more than 1,200 yuan a month. Most do not have a pension or any kind of medical insurance, and even if they do have insurance, it will not necessarily help.

When 49-year-old street cleaner Zhang Zhijuan from Harbin suffered a stroke after working in the snow last year, local officials refused to award her work-injury compensation because they said regulations excluded victims of sudden illness who did not actually die within 48 hours of the incident.

Despite the low pay and dangerous conditions that many workers still endure, there is room for cautious optimism.

Over the past few years, we have seen more and more workers taking matters into their own hands; demanding not just better pay but safer working conditions, and to be treated as a human being, not just a unit of production.

Workers have gone on strike, staged protests on the streets and on social media, and sued their employers in the courts. And they are increasingly getting support from the media, civil society activists and ordinary members of the public.

After a wave of strikes by street cleaners in Guangzhou earlier this year and support from a student activist who issued an open letter stating that "the cleaners' salary is a test of the city's conscience", Guangzhou's mayor announced a 20 per cent pay increase for all sanitation workers.

Workers are demanding change, and in the wake of the Baoyuanfeng tragedy, now is surely the time that everyone - factory managers, government and trade union officials, and ordinary citizens across China - should start to listen. Currently, managers and local government officials seem to value productivity and profit much more than work safety, and factory trade unions by and large simply do what management tells them to.

Let's hope the fire at Baoyuanfeng provides a jolt to this reckless complacency. However, it will require a long and sustained campaign by workers on the factory floor and their supporters in civil society to really effect meaningful change.

Managers and officials must not only listen to workers' demands but also rethink their priorities. They must take a more proactive role in ensuring safety standards are enforced, employees are properly trained and fully aware of all workplace hazards, and understand the emergency procedures in place to deal with accidents.

In short, the ultimate goal must be to once again create a work culture in China where everyone is responsible for safety.

Geoffrey Crothall is director of communications at China Labour Bulletin

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