Worker Safety Concerns Linger 20 Years After Shenzhen Factory Fire

2013-11-19
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Hong Kong activists and Zhili fire survivors march in Hong Kong to call for better factory safety conditions, Nov. 19, 2013.
Photo courtesy of Labour Action China

Two decades after a fire at a toy factory in southern China's Shenzhen killed 87 workers, most of them young women, Hong Kong activists and survivors have hit out at the continuing failure of China's employers to protect their workers from death and injury in the workplace.

As activists in Hong Kong marked the anniversary of the Zhili Handicrafts Factory fire on Tuesday with a march calling for better safety conditions, survivor Sun Chengyun told RFA's Cantonese Service  that her life had been blighted by the tragedy.

"I suffered 50 percent burns all over my body," said Sun, a former worker at the factory, which had breached safety regulations. "Whenever this comes up, I feel so downhearted."

"Ever since then, I have just been at home doing nothing, because I don't want other people to see the scars on my body," Sun said.

"My whole left hand has been crippled out of shape, and my left leg and arm and back are scarred," she said.

Sun said the Chinese authorities had boosted fire safety features in factories since the Zhili fire shocked the world and caused a public outcry over the treatment of rural migrant workers 20 years ago.

"They have fire exits, marked in green, and there are now fire extinguishers on every floor of the dormitory buildings," she said.

"But whether or not they would actually be available when needed is another matter."

Breach of safety regulations

In 1993, managers Huang Guoguang and Lao Zhaoquan hired mainly female migrant workers from rural Sichuan and Henan to work in the Hong Kong-owned factory sub-contracted to make toys for the Italian multinational Artsana S.p.A./Chicco, according to the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin (CLB).

The factory had breached safety regulations by combining workers' dormitories, production facilities, and storage in one building, adding bars to the windows and locking fire escape exits to prevent theft, CLB said in a report on the fire.

"On Nov. 19, 1993, fire broke out and quickly spread through the building," it said.

"Most of the charred remains of the 87 victims of the fire were piled up in heaps at the locked exits."

A further 47 people were seriously injured in the fire, which hit world headlines and caused widespread public outrage at the blocking of fire exits.

Hong Kong march

Hong Kong activists marched to the local offices of the International Toy Manufacturers' Association to mark the anniversary of the Zhili fire and to call for better safety standards among its member factories in China.

Suki Chung, executive director of the Hong Kong-based Labor Watch China, said Hong Kong companies were still the world's top exporters of toys, using factories in mainland China.

"A large number of Hong Kong-invested toy factories are involved in occupational injuries and deaths," Chung said on Tuesday. "There are at least 200 cases of poisoning every year, which take place particularly in the Pearl River delta region."

"Many of those never receive compensation," she said.

Workplace accidents

In 2006, government figures revealed that around 700,000 people become disabled annually in China as the result of a workplace accident, Chung's group reported on its website.

She said many factories were able to receive safety certificates through corrupt channels, and that certification was no guarantee that effective safety measures were in place.

"This says nothing about their safety status, and the bigger factories all have poor safety practices," she said.

"We are calling on the Toy Manufacturers' Association to liaise with factories to make public details of their safety licensing procedures," Chung said.

An official who answered the phone at the Shenzhen municipal labor bureau declined to comment on the avoidance of workplace safety standards by factory owners in southern China.

"I don't know. We have no information about this at all," the employee said.

Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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