China Factory Fire Raises Safety Concerns

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.

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.

This story first appeared in the December 6, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

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.

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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.

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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.”