Blaze at Christmas doll plant kills 81

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The Independent Online
EIGHTY-ONE Chinese workers, making cheap Christmas dolls for export, died when fire swept through a part Hong Kong-owned factory in southern China's booming Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. The victims, mostly female migrant labourers from poor inland provinces, were trapped because doors and windows had been locked to prevent theft. Thirty-one women were injured, six critically.

The incident, which took place on Friday, is the latest in a series of industrial disasters in China where factory safety standards tend to be sacrificed in the 'get rich quick' atmosphere of the world's fastest- growing economy. The tragedy came as President Bill Clinton hosted a summit of Asian and Pacific leaders in Seattle to promote, a regional trade boom based partly on lax regulation and cheap labour. In May this year, 188 Thai workers, mostly women, were burned to death when a locked toy factory caught fire outside Bangkok.

The Zhili Handicraft Factory, a Sino-Hong Kong joint venture, is based in Kuiyong town, about 20 miles north-east of the British colony. About 3,000 toy manufacturers, most part Hong Kong-owned, are now based in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, attracted by the country's cheap labour force and land.

Survivors described how they tried to escape but found exits and windows blocked by wire or railings. 'Thick black smoke was all around me, it was like hell. I crawled down the staircases floor after floor, holding my breath until I touched an exit door,' said Deng Jiyin, a woman in her twenties.

Most industrial accidents in China tend to go unreported, or take weeks for news to filter out, but those in Shenzhen cannot be hushed up because of the proximity to Hong Kong. In August a series of huge blasts at a chemical depot in Shenzhen killed at least 15 people and injured 200, according to official figures. Even then, the final death toll was very unclear with early reports as high as 70.

Yesterday the Peking government's mouthpiece, the People's Daily, buried the news on its fourth page but admitted standards had been lax. 'Because of the factory's sealed way of operating, corridors were narrow and the doors were locked, and the workers could not get out in time,' it said. Another Peking-controlled newspaper said authorities sent the factory a notice in March ordering changes.

Working and safety conditions in China's joint venture factories have been under attack recently from the Chinese official media and the government-controlled trade unions. However, safety standards are also abysmal at China's cash- strapped state enterprises.

Well-known toys made in Chinese factories for Western firms include dolls from the Captain Scarlet, Action Man and Barbie ranges, Thunderbirds' Tracy Island, and Jurassic Park dinosaurs. Toys from Fisher-Price, Tomy, Corgi and Playskool are also manufactured there. Yesterday Hamleys toy shop in Regent Street, London, had shelves crammed with Chinese-made goods but few of the thousands of families there were studying country of origin. Christine Jacks, a mother-of- two from Shrewsbury, Shropshire, said she did not look to see where a toy was made but might start doing so now.

Rights in China, page 12