On the evening of 8 July, extreme summer heat led to the spontaneous combustion of a stock of nitrocellulose stored at the Jinyan Firework Factory in Guanghan, Sichuan. Firefighters from ten local stations were dispatched to the scene to deal with the growing blaze, and 7,100 local villagers, some of who lived just a few hundred metres from the factory, were evacuated. Before the fire could be brought under control, there was a large explosion that severely injured two firefighters and also injured four local residents. One of the firefighters later died from his injuries. At the time of the accident, production at the factory had been suspended, and there were only two employees on duty.
This is not the first time that the Jinyan Firework Factory has encountered problems with work safety and the safety of its products. Following the accident, local media uncovered a long list of failed safety inspections, cases where company managers had lied to investigators, illegal operations, defective products that caused serious injury, and a previous explosion at the plant on 21 January, 2019. On that occasion, thankfully, there were no injuries.
What has the factory trade union been doing throughout this ominous catalogue of events? The day after the explosion, China Labour Bulletin Executive Director Han Dongfang called the Deyang Municipal Federation of Trade Unions, which supervises Guanghan, to find out. Apart from the fact that an enterprise trade union had been established at the same time as the Jinyan Firework Co. Ltd. took over the factory in 2006, the Deyang officials could not say.
Instead, the local trade union officials simply reported that the local government had taken charge of the accident investigation and that the trade union had to follow the government’s lead. When Han suggested that the Deyang union could easily gain a better understanding of the situation on the ground by directly contacting the enterprise union, the officials said that was not their responsibility and suggested that CLB contact the Guanghan union to find out more information.
Han noted that on 21 May, six weeks before the explosion, Chen Li, a senior inspector from the Sichuan Provincial Federation of Trade Unions had visited Guanghan and stressed that “wherever there is production, the trade union must get involved to ensure work safety.” Han asked, given that firework production is such a key industry in the city, and a highly dangerous industry, why had the local unions not arranged for Chen to visit the firework factories there? The officials suggested that CLB write to the provincial union federation asking for the relevant information to be made public.
On 30 June, just eight days before the explosion, the Guanghan union staged an event to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. A major theme of the event was “enhancing grassroots governance in rural areas.” Han asked what the union was doing in rural villages when there was an urgent need for officials to be in local enterprises helping improve work safety. Again, the Deyang officials had no answers to these questions.
When an enterprise like the Jinyan Firework Factory repeatedly fails government inspections and has numerous accidents, why is the local trade union so reluctant to get involved and rectify the situation, particularly when workers’ lives are at risk? Why did the union not even bother to investigate after being on notice of the obvious problems at the factory and simply rely on government inspectors?
There are clear stipulations in China’s labour laws that trade union officials are not only entitled to supervise work safety in enterprises, they are actually obligated to do so. Any official that does not take their responsibilities to represent their members and ensure a safe working environment for them is in dereliction of their duty.
The firework industry is a key industry for Guanghan. It is essential, therefore, that trade unions be established in all firework factories there. And it is the responsibility of the supervising unions in Guanghan and Deyang to ensure that these enterprise unions function properly and can actively work to prevent a repeat of the 7 July Jinyan tragedy.
For more details on this case (including links to relevant Chinese media articles), please refer to our original Chinese article, 四川广汉鞭炮厂事故频发，各级工会无动于衷, in the trade union reform and accountability section of our website. And for a broader discussion of the trade union’s role in work safety, please see our new Chinese-language research report 工会归位，履行安全生产监督职责.