Children among the dead in Shenzhen market fire

12 December 2013

At least 16 people, including three young children, were killed in a fire at an agricultural wholesale market in Shenzhen in the early hours of Wednesday morning. A family of six, who were sleeping at the market, reportedly lost their lives in the tragedy.

The Rongjian market in the outer suburbs of Shenzhen was designed as a “three-in-one” structure that included accommodation for stall holders who had to be on hand for early morning deliveries.

The cause of what is the city’s worst fire in five years is currently under investigation but witnesses have already pointed out that many of the hydrants at the market were not working properly when the first fire trucks arrived around 1.40 am.

“The fire should have been under control if the safety equipment worked well. More people should have survived,” a security guard at the market told the South China Morning Post. The fire eventually engulfed an area of more than 1,000 square metres and needed 145 fire-fighters to bring it under control.

The Rongjian tragedy highlights once again the lax fire safety measures at many of China’s workplaces. Just six months ago, 121 workers died in a fire that swept through a poultry processing plant in the north-eastern province of Jilin on the morning of 3 June. In this case, highly flammable materials were stored on site but almost all of the exits to the workshops had been locked from outside and none of the 395 employees working at the time had been given any fire safety training.

Following the Jilin fire, the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) dispatched teams to assess safety standards at factories across the country. The conclusion of SAWS spokesman Huang Yi after the inspection was that: “Problems are striking, and everywhere, and could cause serious accidents if they are not properly addressed.”

SAWS inspection teams arrived at enterprises unannounced and “found a lot of problems - pipelines and wires were substandard, switches were not explosion-proof, and many valves had been rusted and could not be switched on or off,” Huang said.

Huang was particularly critical of the lax enforcement of safety standards by local government officials and stressed that whenever SAWS investigated an accident it always looked into the possibility of corruption and collusion with local government officials.

Huang’s colleague in the SAWS legal affairs department, Li Haowen, added that: “Enterprises must shoulder primary responsibility for safety at work, and the government must fulfil its role of management and supervision.”

However, as CLB pointed out in a commentary in the South China Morning Post on 11 June, it should be the responsibility of everyone, not just factory managers and government officials but the trade union, civil society and most importantly the workers themselves, to ensure safety at work. In short, a fundamental change in work culture is needed, where safety really does come first.

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