Fatal fire reveals price of China's boom

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The Independent Online


The human cost of southern China's export-driven economic success rose again this week when a fire in a Christmas decoration factory killed 19 workers in the Shenzhen special economic zone, bordering Hong Kong. This latest tragedy came despite a two-year-old government drive to enforce better health and safety standards in foreign-owned enterprises.

The blaze at the Taiwanese venture started early on Monday and lasted more than three hours, destroying over 3,000 square metres of factory workshops and workers' dormitories. At least 37 workers at the Longhua town site were also injured.

Two years ago, a series of fires in southern China shocked Peking into trying to improve safety for the millions of migrant Chinese workers who staff the export-driven enterprises, often working in sweat-shop conditions. But all too often, bribery and corrupt practice mean that safety regulations are flouted.

In November 1993, a fire at the Hong Kong joint-venture Zhili toy factory in Shenzhen killed 87 workers and injured 47. The victims, almost all migrant female workers, had been locked into their dormitory building because the owners were concerned about possible thefts. They had no chance of escape. A month later, a fire at the Taiwanese joint venture Gaofu Textiles factory in Fuzhou killed 61.

Among those later jailed for their part in the Zhili factory tragedy were two Shenzhen fire officials who had been bribed into letting the enterprise pass its fire inspections.

Dangerous conditions are no deterrent to unemployed rural workers who eagerly seek work in joint-venture factories. Salaries probably average around 500 yuan (pounds 40) a month, significantly more than these workers could earn in their home provinces.

After the 1993 deaths, the Chinese government introduced regulations forcing foreign joint ventures to set up branches of the government-controlled, All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). However, in China's own unionised state enterprises, the health and safety record is also poor. Statistics are difficult to obtain, but according to the Ministry of Labour there were 28,200 industrial fires in the first 10 months of 1993, killing 1,480 people and injuring 51,340.

A new wide-ranging labour law came into force a year ago as the government tried to respond to growing labour unrest, in foreign-invested factories and in state enterprises. The law is supposed to safeguard rights to minimum wages, overtime, and basic working conditions, but in many areas local officials remain reluctant to enforce the regulations out of fear of frightening away foreign investment.