BEIJING — The sheer scale of workplace safety risks and labor violations in China is coming into sharper focus after the deadly fire at a garment factory in Bangladesh and a more recent, smaller blaze at a factory in the southern city of Shantou.
China remains the world’s leading textile producer. Its vast network of factories, fueled by migrant labor from poor provinces, is a major source of an unsettling number of workplace-related injuries every year.
On Tuesday, a Chinese man set fire to the Shantou garment factory where he once worked, killing 14 young women and injuring another who worked there. The incident sparked questions both about China’s workplace safety and continuing labor violations at the country’s factories that often lead to protests and sometimes violent actions.
Liu Shuangyun, who has been arrested after the Shantou fire, told Guangdong TV he was angry about the equivalent of less than $500 in unpaid wages the underwear factory owed him from when he quit his job three years ago. Liu, 26, said he didn’t think about the potential loss of life when he set the fire, and that he now regretted what he had done. Liu said he was furious that his boss came up with repeated excuses to avoid paying him over the course of several years and he set the factory on fire in frustration.
Geoffrey Crothall, communications director for China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based labor rights monitoring organization, explained that because of lack of oversight, smaller factories in China are typically prone to the worst safety problems.
Large Chinese factories are more typically under watch and in compliance, but in Guangdong province and across the Pearl River Delta and other manufacturing hubs, makeshift factories can pop up in residential complexes, small buildings and spaces ill-equipped with safety equipment or proper procedures. Old equipment, lack of training and having workers live in the factory adds to the potential for danger.
“There are not enough personnel or resources for local government to make sure all the factories are up to code,” said Crothall. “There are simply far too many factories and far too few government staff to get the job done.”
Factory managers in China say there are stricter guidelines and more enforcement than five years ago. But they also say policing is more often done at larger workshops and smaller, fly-by-night production houses are not watched with the same scrutiny.
In recent years, China has said its workplace fatalities have declined. But the numbers remain higher than anywhere else, with nearly 90,000 people killed on the job and almost 400,000 injured at work in 2010, according to the government official labor statistics.
Annual figures have not been published for 2011, but there have been no significant reforms or advances in workplace safety.
In fact, workplace accidents are so common in China and the numbers of people engaged in potentially dangerous work, deadly accidents like coal mine disasters can almost begin to seem routine. But Crothall said China has not had a major factory fire as deadly as the one in Bangladesh since 1994.
American companies including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Walt Disney Co. have distanced themselves from a supplier after the factory fire in Bangladesh last week killed 112 garment workers. The blaze at Bangladesh’s Tazreen Fashions Ltd.’s factory north of Dhaka left the workshop ruined and 1,200 workers who survived without jobs or income.
The fragmented supplier chain that is global manufacturing provides the same distance to U.S. companies that produce goods in China. Often workers don’t know where the goods they produce are sold, or for which brands their work is ultimately made. But workers in China are continuing to amass better knowledge of their rights under China’s emergent labor contract law, which came into effect in 2008.
On that note, wage and contract clashes are likely to remain a source of tension and potential danger, as seen in Shantou. CLB documented more than 100 labor disputes and strikes in China last month alone, the majority of them related to wage disputes and factories moving to cheaper parts of China or closing down all together.
“We are seeing a lot of disputes related to factories closing down or relocating and workers not being paid,” said Crothall. “The bosses just close up shop, sell off the machinery and run away.”
“These collections continue to build on that vision, empowering differently abled adults to express themselves through fashion,” said @tommyhilfiger of his line of adaptive apparel, which launches today. The line consists of 37 men’s and 34 women’s styles based upon the pieces from the spring Tommy Hilfiger sportswear collection. #wwdnews
“Stranger Things” is getting a new cast member for season 2. Meet @sadiesink_, the 15-year-old who will be joining the Netflix series for its new season. You may recognize her from “The Glass Castle” with Brie Larson and Woody Harrelson, but the Texas native’s next role goes in an entirely different direction. She describes her character, Max, as “a rough and tumble skater girl [who] becomes friends with the boys at school.” The second season debuts on October 27. (📷: @jgreenery) #wwdeye
Amid the Harvey Weinstein controversy, there’s another sector that’s being put under the spotlight for sexual abuse: the modeling industry. While rumors about abuse and sexual harassment of female and male models — and the photographers, agents and others who perpetrated it — have circulated within the fashion world for years, model @cameronrussell started posting stories from models on Instagram last week about abusive situations they’ve encountered — from sexual harassment and molestation to attempted rape. Over 75 have weighed in so far. Read more on WWD.com. Link in bio. #wwdnews
To celebrate its 16th anniversary, @dylanscandybar tapped designers and celebrities to create mosaics out of candy. The mosaics will be auctioned off to support the philanthropic cause of each participant’s choice. Pictured here is the mural created by @aliceandolivia's Stacey Bendet. For a first look at some of the other artwork being unveiled tonight, go to WWD.com. #wwdeye
The annual Veuve Clicquot Polo Classic in Pacific Palisades this weekend drew Kate Hudson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Laura Dern and more. See pictures of the star-studded event on WWD.com. (📷: @chelsealaurenla) #wwdeye
In his new book “Hollywood Royale,” Andy Warhol’s Protégé Matthew Rolston celebrates the Eighties revival of Hollywood glamour. Featuring more than 100 portraits taken by Rolston from 1977 to 1993, the book contains photos of icons like Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, and @drewbarrymore, pictured here in 1991. “Hollywood Royale,” out today, will be accompanied by an exhibition opening at Los Angeles’ Fahey/Klein Gallery on March 1. #wwdeye
"Nowadays when life is not so happy with everything going on in the world, I think people come to me for a little bit of whimsy and color and fun." - Designer Rebecca De Ravenel on her cult-favorite jewelry line. (📸 : @vsteves) #wwd40
“Everyone is talking about how the retail industry is struggling, but I think it’s an incredible time because brands who are doing something different and innovative are setting themselves up for the future,” said @adamgoldston, who founded the luxury athletic brand @apl with his brother @ryangoldsten. The Goldston’s are part of WWD’s 40 under 40: a group of industry notables. See the rest of the list on WWD.com. (📷: @vsteves) #wwd40
@eyeswoon blogger Athena Calderone debuted her first-ever cookbook, “Cook Beautiful,” which is heavily centered on the presentation and visual expression of food. Pictured here are her miso glazed carrots from the book. Get the recipe on WWD.com. (📷: @johnny_miller_) #wwdeye