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.”
In honor the @CFDA’s announcement of @iamnaomicampbell receiving the Fashion Icon Award at the 2018 #CFDAAwards, which will take place on June 4, here’s a #tbt of the supermodel on @michaelkors’ runway in 1991. #wwdfashion #wwdarchive (📷: George Chinsee)
“I was making the guacamole when my scout saw me,” says model @stuckinteenage on being discovered just six months ago while working at @chipotlemexicangrill. Since then Williams has signed with @dnamodels, walked in her first show at @calvinklein and landed on the cover of @vogueitalia – a high point of any model’s career. To read @lisajlockwood’s full interview with the model on her experiences thus far, head to WWD.com – link in bio. (📷: George Chinsee)
“I love the idea of dialogue, period. It’s where I’ve always gotten my inspiration from: hearing other women speak, their journeys and their paths,” said @hereisgina, who delivered the keynote speech during @sxsw for @createcultivate in partnership with @fossil. For her two panels, Rodriguez chose female empowering, female-led and female entrepreneurs to focus on. Head to WWD.com to read more about her thoughts on Time’s Up, growing up in a family of women and why we “need a girls’ club.” #wwdeye #sxsw (📷: @jgreenery)
Leading luxury brand are shaking things up to keep up with streetwear. Case in point: the arrival of @mrkimjones as artistic director of @diorhomme. Jones, who succeeds @Kris_Van_Assche, is seen as one of the handful of designers who can actually straddle the luxury and streetwear worlds — which could lead to even more changes at established brands. What could this mean for the rest of the menswear landscape? Head to WWD.com to find out what experts predict #wwdfashion (📷: @franckmura)
“It’s like buying groceries. You’re going to buy the best mango, the best mozzarella, the best things. You have to, or others are going to take it all,” said @gabrielahearst on why she uses only the finest fabrics. Last week, Hearst received her first @cfda nomination for Womenswear Designer of the Year, and earlier this month she opened a permanent showroom in Paris. To read @jessiredale’s interview with the designer and find out why this is shaping up to be a big year for her, head to WWD.com. #wwdfashion (📷: @francoisgoize)
“It’s an interesting thing, playing a younger version of your mother. It’s an interesting concept. I adore my mom and love her in every capacity, but it was just something that had never crossed my mind,” says @anniemstarke on playing a young Joan Castleman in “The Wife.” The same role will be played by her mother Glenn Close. Read more about her growing up in the film industry as the daughter of producer John H. Starke and Close and what she has planned for the future #wwdeye (📷: @nataliamantini)
@asics is launching a new streetwear sneaker inspired by its latest ambassador, @steveaoki. The Hyper-Kenzen x Aoki, which will launch at @footlocker stores exclusively tomorrow, is a slip-on style that incorporates the brand’s proprietary Gel technology through beads integrated into the midsole for comfort and endurance. Read the full story on WWD.com.