Workers' deaths cast shadow over political celebrations in Beijing

At least 54 workers died in two separate incidents at unlicensed factories at the weekend following the conclusion of China's17th Communist Party Congress in Beijing. The two incidents, both reported in the official media, are a stark reminder that all the political celebration and ceremony of the last week should not distract attention away from the serious hazards Chinese workers face everyday.

In the first incident on Sunday morning, an explosion at an unlicensed fireworks workshop in southwestern China killed 16 people and injured 15. The explosion destroyed the factory and three neighbouring houses in a remote rural area of Chongqing, the Beijing News reported.

The Xinhua news agency cited sources saying the death toll may rise as rescue work continued, and that the "severely wounded" included two children.

Later on Sunday evening, at least 37 people were killed when a fire swept through an unlicensed shoe factory in Putian, Fujian province. 56 workers were in the building when the blaze at the Feida workshop broke out, and the 19 survivors were all in a critical condition after being treated for smoke inhalation, the China News Service said.

The workshop had been illegally established in a residential area of Putian. Part of the ground floor was used as a warehouse, the workshops were on the second and third floors, and the workers' dining room and dormitories were upstairs.

As CLB has demonstrated in our child labour report, it is very common in China for small-scale factories to be set up in residential areas. In a suburb of Shijiazhuang, for example, clothing manufacturers typically rent two storey houses, using the ground floor as a workshop and the top floor as a dormitory for a few dozen predominately young women workers from the countryside.

In order to avoid detection by labour bureau officials, workers are often locked in the factory all day, working up to 15-hour shifts each day. And even when labour officials do fine factory owners for operating illegally or contravening health and safety regulations, the living and working conditions of the employees rarely improve.

Xinhua reported that the Feida factory owner Chen Zongfei, had ignored two orders in May and September to improve safety standards, and was now in police custody.

According to government statistics, there were 3,599 accidents in the industrial, commercial and trade sectors in the first half of 2007, leading to 3,946 deaths.

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