Twenty-one lives lost in 5 April blaze at the Qingdao Zhengda food factory - at least six workers died after manager blocked th

12 April 2003

Shortly after midnight on 5 April 2003, a fire broke out at the Qingdao Zhengda food-processing factory in Jimo County, near Qingdao City in Shandong Province. The factory is one of many in China owned and run by the Thai multinational, Chia Tai Group. The fire reportedly began on one of the factory floors containing the cooked meat workshop and swept rapidly through the building, bringing down the main roof beam and causing the steel-framed structure to collapse on top of workers trying to escape. There were about 500 nightshift workers in the factory at the time, and according to official reports, 21 of them died in the blaze.

China Labour Bulletin has spoken over the past few days with several workers from the factory, with relatives of the victims, and with local officials and hospital workers treating the injured.


We spoke to the husband, Xiu Lizhao, of a woman who died in the fire and who had worked in the factory's meat barbequing section. Mr. Xiu told us that his wife's section was adjacent to the deep frying section, where the fire broke out, and that according to colleagues of hers who escaped the blaze, they were first alerted to the fire when they saw smoke billowing up from the affected section. According to his wife's co-workers, however, when they tried to escape from the fire, the workshop manager ordered all of them to remain in the workshop until they had "moved the stock to a safe place". By the time the severity of the blaze became clear, it was too late and only those workers who had ignored the manager's orders and immediately left the factory building survived. All the other five members of the dead woman's workgroup also perished in the blaze, and most of the total of 21 workers who died that night were from either the deep-frying section or adjacent areas.

Fires at the Zhengda Factory are apparently not uncommon. Mr. Xiu, who is unemployed and now has sole responsibility for their two children, aged six and ten, also informed CLB that in the past his wife had often come home from work and told him that there had been a fire at the factory. Each time the workers attempted to evacuate the workshops, he said, they were prevented from doing so by threats from the workshop manager that their wages would be cut if they left the production line.

China Labour Bulletin also spoke to a female worker who confirmed that in previous fires at the factory, all those who had left their work posts while the fire was being extinguished subsequently had their wages docked and were fined. Most of them, however, were reportedly too scared to leave for fear of losing their wages.

On 8 April, CLB called the local hospital in Jimo to try to find out more about the injured workers' treatment and condition, but a staff person at the hospital's intensive care unit told us that he was not authorized to comment and that all enquiries "should go to the Jimo Municipal Party Propaganda Department". Since our aim was to learn the facts, we did not act on this suggestion. We did however find out that at least six workers injured in the Zhengda factory blaze were being treated at the hospital's intensive care ward. It is not known how many workers altogether were seriously injured in the fire.

China Labour Bulletin also called the factory's main office several times. However, officials there said that they were unable to comment and that we would have to speak to the factory leadership, all of whom turned out to be unavailable. When we then contacted the Jimo Township Economic and Trade Committee for comment, a member of staff informed us: "Everything has been satisfactorily taken care of". She declined to supply any details, however, as to what actual steps the government had so far taken in response to the fatal blaze, and when CLB asked her why her office apparently had no comment to make on the loss of so many lives, she replied: "You tell me what you think I should say!"


According to the Chia Tai Group's website, the Qingdao Zhengda Company Ltd (the factory's full name) is rigorous in maintaining international standards of food quality and hygiene. Food preparation in both the Qingdao factory and others in China run by the Chia Tai Group is said to conform fully to two major ISO standards (ISO 9000, which deals with product quality, and ISO 14000, which covers environmental standards and sustainability.) The Zhengda food-processing factory employs some 4,000 workers, more than half of whom are non-local, and according to several workers with whom CLB has spoken, the factory is clean, modern and technically well equipped. In May 2001, the European Union, after due inspection of the factory, reportedly approved the import of goods from the Qingdao Zhengda factory, making it one of only a small number of enterprises in China that were authorized to export poultry products to E.U. countries.

However, the factory appears to be seriously deficient in the provision of basic safety equipment and fire-prevention training for the workforce. Although CLB cannot independently confirm these details, several workers from the Zhengda factory have told us that there is not even a sprinkler system installed; several workers have said that they heard no fire alarms go off on the night of the blaze; and another even stated that, to her knowledge, there were no fire alarms installed at the factory complex.

In a conversation with Jimo County officials, CLB was told that the local government carries out a safety inspection at the Zhengda factory every year, and that inspectors have always described working conditions there as "excellent". However, according to one worker contacted by CLB, only one outside safety inspection has been carried out at the factory during the past five years, and that occurred after an earlier fire there two years ago.

A senior worker at the factory informed us that new workers in her workshop were given training in how to use the fire extinguishers, at the time of their recruitment, by one of three section managers authorized to carry out such training. She also said that periodic meetings were held, during slack periods at her workshop, to discuss other safety-related issues. However, when CLB asked her if she felt that the fire-safety training given was adequate, she replied that in her view it was not. She also said that, to her knowledge, no fire evacuation drills had been conducted at the factory throughout her five years of employment there.

One worker said that in her section of the factory, the barbequed meat workshop (an area of 10 metres by 30 metres in size, where more than 90 workers per shift were stationed), only two fire extinguishers had been provided. Several workers have told CLB that there is a red "fire prevention box" (xiaofang xiang) placed in the corner of each workshop - but none of our informants had any knowledge of what it contained, or of how to use it in the event of a fire. Two workers we spoke with also said that they had not received any fire or other health and safety training at all during more than three years of employment at the factory. A worker from the sauce dipping section told us that she had no idea how to use the fire extinguishers and that, in the event of a fire, the only safety procedure she was aware of was: "To run out of the building as fast as possible." In addition, despite national regulations governing the safe storage of inflammable goods, one worker told CLB that large cans of oil were stored just three metres away from the production line.

It may be that better safety training is given to staff at the Zhengda factory who work with inflammable goods and higher-risk cooking processes, while those working in less hazardous parts of the factory, such as the sauce dipping section, receive little or no such training. However, the factory's apparent lack of any fire evacuation drills or training - a feature reported by all our informants - is in clear contravention of China's national fire safety regulations and may have contributed to the deaths of 21 people.

Article 14 of the PRC Law on Fire Fighting, adopted in 1998, stipulates that all government organisations, groups, enterprises and institutions shall, among other requirements, "establish a fire-safety system and lay down rules for fire-safety drills." And according to the Ministry of Public Security's "Guidance for Fire Fighting During the Tenth Five-Year Plan (2001-05)," issued on 9 May 2001:

"Enterprises and organizations must strengthen their fire fighting management and clearly delegate fire-fighting responsibilities within their organisation. Enterprises with a high fire risk should incorporate fire-fighting training into their employee training programs...[and] operators of flammable and explosive materials must receive fire fighting training and obtain related permits."


There is reportedly no trade union branch at the Qingdao Zhengda factory, despite attempts in recent years by the local Jimo office of the All-China federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) to establish one. A member of staff at the Jimo ACFTU office informed CLB that four years ago he had approached the Zhengda factory about setting up a union branch there. However, factory officials refused his request on the puzzling grounds that since the Chia Tai Group already had a union established in its China head office, a branch union at the Zhengda plant would be superfluous. The ACFTU official then sent a report on the matter to the higher-level Qingdao City ACFTU office, but after four years it has apparently still not responded. According to other CLB sources, the Zhengda factory management has consistently opposed setting up an ACFTU branch at the factory because of the amount of union fees (several tens of thousands of yuan) that the company would be required to pay if it had one.

Several Zhengda workers have told CLB about the excessively long working hours at the factory. The day shift workers reportedly start work at 7.00 am and finish at around 6.30 pm, with an hour for lunch; and if there is an urgent order to fulfil they work longer. The night shift begins at 6.00 pm and continues until 7.00 am (or during busy periods, until 9 or 10 am), with a half-hour meal break at midnight. With only one rest day allowed weekly, this amounts to an average of 66 to 75 hours per week. The average monthly wage at Zhengda is between 600 and 700 Yuan. Such long working hours clearly contravene the PRC Labour Law, Article 36 of which provides for an average standard working week of 44 hours, together with (under Article 41) an average maximum of nine hours' overtime per week.

In addition, the Qingdao Zhengda factory apparently provides no medical insurance for its workers, and pension benefits are only provided for those who have worked at the factory for four years or more. Occupational health and safety provision also appears to be poor. One worker on the barbequed meat section of the production line told CLB that in her section all the workers have to stand continuously throughout their shift. A few years ago, she said, the factory had experimented with providing chairs for the workers, but these were removed after only three days because managers felt they hampered the half-hourly floor sweepings that were needed to maintain product standards and quality. According to the worker, the great majority of those in her section have developed varicose veins as a result of standing continuously through 10 to 12-hour daily shifts. Moreover, another worker at the factory told us that in his section, where they slice up the cooked meat,the production line was recently speeded up substantially, with the result that workers there cannot afford even a momentary lapse of concentration throughout their shifts without risk of injuring themselves.


The Chia Tai Corporation is a large multinational enterprise that operates factories in most provinces in China and runs retail stores (including 7-Eleven) throughout Thailand. As a model foreign-owned enterprise and a very profitable one, the Chia Tai Group has enjoyed ready access to China's senior political leadership since 1979. In April 1990, for example, the chairman of the board, Dhanin Chearavanont, was granted a highly publicized personal audience with Deng Xiaoping. (Excerpts from Deng's remarks to Chearavanont, highlighting the "correctness and necessity" of the government's military suppression on 4 June 1989 of the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement, appear in The Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Volume 3.) Since then, Chia Tai's top executives have been accorded a series of similarly high-profile meetings with no lesser political figures than Jiang Zemin, Li Peng and Zhu Rongji.

The Chia Tai Group, therefore, not only has abundant economic resources, it also enjoys close working ties with officials at the summit of the Chinese Communist Party. Yet neither of these favourable factors appears to have contributed to the establishment of minimally acceptable - let alone enhanced - levels of safe working conditions at the Thai multinational's Qingdao factory. Indeed, it is possible that the Chia Tai Group's well-known reputation as a favoured enterprise with high-level political connections in China may even have added to the pressures - widely felt by government safety inspectors throughout China - on local officials to provide favourable reports on worker safety arrangements at the company's Qingdao plant. Safety inspectors elsewhere in China are reportedly often bribed into passing failing factories, or else threatened and even physically attacked if they refuse to do so.

As its adherence to the ISO 9000 and 14000 standards serves to indicate, the Chia Tai Group prides itself on providing high quality products for the international market. But the company appears to accord a substantially lower priority to providing safe working conditions for its employees than it does to increasing its international market and customer base. Hygiene standards on the production line are rigorously safeguarded, while key fire-safety precautions such as evacuation drill training appear to be largely non-existent or else ignored.


The deaths of 21 employees in the 5 March blaze at the Zhengda factory seem to have posed no major obstacle to the Zhengda factory's continued production activities. The burnt-out workshop's operations were reportedly relocated to another part of the factory, and work at the plant is said to have resumed early on the morning of 8 April - just three days after the tragic blaze. Commenting on the disaster, Han Dongfang, CLB's director, said: "At the very least, the workforce was surely entitled to expect that the factory would remain closed while a full safety inspection was carried out and a comprehensive new fire-prevention system was put in place. But in fact, nothing of this nature seems to have happened."

According to fire prevention authorities, most fires require only 45 seconds to four minutes before reaching the critical 'flashover' point at which all combustible items in a room burst into flames and the fire spreads out of control. Established fire-drill procedures therefore stress the need for prompt evacuation of all personnel in the event of any fire. For managers of the Zhengda factory to have instructed workers to remain behind in fire-threatened workshops, especially ones containing oil supplies, would seem to indicate not only willful disregard of their employees' basic safety, but also possible criminal behaviour on their part.

At an emergency meeting convened in the aftermath of the accident, the Shandong provincial governor and senior officials from Qingdao instructed that an inspection of the Zhengda factory should be carried out by the Qingdao Safety Department as soon as possible. At the same time, however, it was stressed that the factory should resume production as soon as possible. In April 2002, in response to a series of large industrial fires, the Chinese government launched a major fire-prevention campaign throughout China. Nonetheless, more than 100 people have lost their lives in industrial explosions and fires in China during the few weeks alone.

In response to further major accidents earlier this year, the State Council on 26 March issued an urgent circular calling for a nationwide re-inspection of safety standards in all industrial enterprises. Merely reiterating the need for safety inspections, however, will clearly not suffice to solve China's continuing epidemic of fatal fires in the workplace. What is most urgently needed is for local authorities to begin strictly implementing the existing national and local-level fire safety regulations, and for firm steps to be taken to end not only the current lax enforcement of safety procedures but also the widespread official complicity in their neglect.

China has ratified the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Article 7 of which states that all workers have the right to enjoy safe and healthy working conditions. "The lives and safety of Chinese workers are increasingly being ignored in the drive to produce goods of international standards. But we cannot allow workers to go on being the unprotected victims of China's economic expansion drive," said Han Dongfang. "According to Chinese law, all workers have the right to leave the workplace immediately if they believe it to be unsafe. In the Qingdao Zhengda fire disaster, workers were denied the right to save their own lives and priority was instead placed by management on the saving of factory goods."

The fact that the Chia Tai Group is a large and profitable multinational corporation merely adds to the tragedy of the event. Throughout China, health and safety procedures are widely ignored because of factory management's failure to install the proper equipment and observe legally stipulated safety procedures. Such failures are often blamed on the lack of money and space in China's small industries. The Chia Tai Group, however, lacks neither the money nor the knowledge to be able to provide full safety protection for all workers in its factories.

China Labour Bulletin calls upon the Chinese government to undertake a thorough and complete investigation into the causes of the blaze and the high number of fatalities in the Qingdao Zhengda disaster, and to ensure both that the results are made fully public and that those responsible for the loss of life are promptly brought to justice.
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