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.”
From overseeing America’s fastest-growing speciality retailers to codifying cool, WWD talked to the women who are leading the way for the future of beauty. Check out our Instagram Stories to see how these women built today and are creating tomorrow. (📸: @hannah_khymych) #wwdbeauty
For @laperlalingerie's spring 2018 show, the brand chose to host their event at @thevenetianmacao. With Chinese megastars @bingbing_fan and @hubing in attendance, La Perla debuted a rock ‘n’ roll-inspired collection. The show marked the start of Sands Macao Fashion Week, which runs from October 19 to 24 — the city’s first such event. Pictured here are models backstage with glimmering eyes. #wwdfashion (📷: Cheuk-Yin To)
Trending for spring 2018: top stitch design. Gone are the days of stitch just for seams — designers are using the once-minimal detail to create strong decorative elements. (📷: Paola Testa; Styled by @andrew_shang) #wwdfashion
@tradesy is turning the concept of a showroom upside down with its new space in Santa Monica. Here, the company plans to hold events, art exhibits and a showcase rare fashion pieces like this Louis Vuitton boxing set. Get all the details on Tradesy’s first showroom on WWD.com. #wwdnews
Spotted last night at the @erdem x @hm launch event: Kate Bosworth, Rashida Jones, Kirsten Dunst and Selma Blair. The party, which took place in LA, also marked the opening of their pop-up shop. “I was interested in creating a collection that wasn’t in any way disposable. It was about pieces you’d create and keep forever, things that have a permanence to it,” designer Erdem Moralioglu said. #wwdeye (📷: Katie Jones)
Renee Zellweger in yellow in 2001 and again in 2017. Chosen as one of the 12 @pantone Leading Spring Colors (and dubbed “Meadowlark”), it only makes sense that the bright hue stands the test of time and is making a resurgence this season, seen already on stars like @blakelively and @gigihadid. (📷: Donato Sardello & @rexfeatures) #wwdfashion #tbt
Dior’s 70th anniversary celebration continues with a new exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. “Christian Dior,” which is scheduled to run through March 18, takes a look at the founders tenure from 1947 to 1057 and feature 40 designs. Pictured here is an evening gown from the Ailée, fall 1948-49 haute couture collection. #wwdfashion (📷: Brian Boyle)