Work safety

Introduction

China is undeniably a safer place to work than it was a decade ago. However, accident rates, death tolls and the incidence of occupational disease are all still comparatively high. New work hazards have emerged as the economy develops, and many employers continue to prioritise productivity and profit well above work safety.

In this new addition to CLB’s Key Issues, we provide a historical overview of work safety in China and assess the extent to which the current legal and administrative framework has actually helped to protect workers. We use CLB’s Workplace Accident Map to pinpoint China’s most dangerous industries and examine the most common hazards faced by workers today, including occupational disease, overwork and dangerous living conditions.

The Workplace Accident Map shows that, contrary to many expectations, China’s most hazardous jobs are not in coal mining but rather in the poorly-regulated construction industry. The construction industry accounts for more than a third of all the accidents recorded on the map and these incidents most commonly involve some kind of structural or mechanical failure or workers falling from a height.

Workplace accidents in China are sadly routine and commonplace, usually involving a handful of people at most. These “minor” incidents do not attract the kind of mass media and government attention that major tragedies like the 2015 Tianjin port explosion get. As a result, the relatively prosaic underlying issues that give rise to more typical workplace accidents and occupational disease, such as a lack of safety equipment and training, are rarely addressed. It is clear that China will not be able to create and maintain a truly safe working environment until these problems are tackled at the grassroots by the government, employers and workers alike.

From coal miners to delivery drivers: Changing patterns in work hazards over the last decade

During the economic boom of the 2000s, China had a terrible work safety record. The country’s coal mines in particular were widely recognised as the most dangerous workplaces in the world, with at least 7,000 miners losing their lives in 2002 alone. There were several occasions during this period when more than one hundred miners died in a single incident, usually the result of a gas or coal dust explosion, including three major accidents in the five months between October 2004 and February 2005 that killed a total of 528 miners (see table below).

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Coal mine accidents in China involving more than 100 deaths in 2004-2005
Date of accident Location Official death toll Cause of accident
20 October 2004 Daping Coal Mine, owned by the Zhengmei Group in Henan 148 Gas explosion
28 November 2004 Chenjiashan Coal Mine, Tongchuan Mining Bureau, Shaanxi 166 Gas explosion
14 February 2005 Sunjiawan Coal Mine, Fuxin Coal Industry Group, Liaoning 214 Gas explosion
7 August 2005 Daxing Coal Mine, Wanghuai, Guangdong 123 Flood
27 November 2005 Dongfeng Coal Mine, Qitaihe branch of Heilongjiang Longmei Group, Heilongjiang 171 Coal dust explosion

By 2017, the official number of deaths in coal mines has fallen to 375. It is a remarkable improvement for which the Chinese government deserves some credit. However, the main reasons for the lower death toll and accident rate are economic rather than administrative; falling coal prices, declining production and industry consolidation etc. Moreover, 375 deaths per year is still 375 deaths too many, and much still needs to be done before coal mining can be considered a safe occupation in China. Indeed, a rapid rise in coal prices in the 2016 led to an alarming spike in coal mine accidents at the end of that year. There were at least nine major coal mine accidents in just three weeks from 20 November to 10 December 2016, killing at least 86 workers. Moreover, some of these accidents occurred at previously closed mines that had been reopened to take advantage of higher coal prices. Another surge in coal prices will likely bring more accidents again. By way of comparison, there were a total of 15 coal mine deaths in the United States in the whole of 2017, up from a low of just eight deaths in 2016.

The decline in death and accident rates in the coal industry has been mirrored to some extent across most industries in China, although the overall rate of decline has not been as rapid as in the coal industry (see graph below). The average annual decrease in coal mining deaths from 2005 to 2017 was about 18 percent, while the overall annual rate of decrease was just under ten percent on average. There were about 127,000 workplace deaths in 2005, according to official figures. In 2017, that official total had fallen by 70 percent to stand at about 38,000, or 104 deaths per day.

* There was a significant drop in the number of overall worker deaths from 2015 to 2016 due to a change in the way official statistics are calculated. From 2015 onwards, so-called “non-production accidents” were excluded from the total figure, according to the Statistical Communiqué of the People's Republic of China on the 2016 National Economic and Social Development. However, the exact calculation method remains opaque.

Although the overall situation in China’s workplace safety has improved, major problems remain and, importantly, the nature of accidents has changed significantly. China’s economy has shifted away from heavy industries like coal and steel production towards service industries and e-commerce platforms with more informal patterns of employment, and it is in these industries that we see an increase in the number of accidents, injuries and deaths.

One of the most dangerous occupations in China today is that of delivery driver. One report from 2017 found that a Shanghai delivery driver is either badly injured or dies in a traffic incident every 2.5 days on average, while in nearby Nanjing, there are 18 accidents involving delivery drivers every day. However, many of these accidents slip through the cracks of official statistics, as in the case of food delivery driver Yang Song, who died while working a 14 hours shift in Chongqing in August of 2017. The police told Yang’s bereaved mother that he was “solely responsible” for the accident, and the food delivery company insisted that Yang was merely an “independent contractor,” and therefore his case could not be classified as a work accident or covered by work-related accident insurance. Most drivers for food and parcel delivery platforms are considered contractors rather than actual employees and therefore are on their own in the event of an accident.

Major food delivery platforms such as Meituan can earn incredible revenues, just as China’s coal barons did in the past, and drivers are beginning to realise that, again like in the coal industry, the intense push for profit is a major factor in the frequency of accidents. As one Meituan delivery driver commented during a protest in Kunming over harsh new working conditions that forced drivers to take huge risks in order to make deliveries in time: “Am I supposed to drive through red lights? Putting this kind of pressure on us is simply toying with our lives.”

The legal and administrative framework for work safety

The 2002 Work Safety Law (安全生产法) provides the main legal framework for the rights and responsibilities of workers, employers and government agencies in creating and maintaining a safe workplace.

  • Employees have the right to stop any work they deem to be unsafe. Employers may not cut the pay, benefits, or dismiss any worker who stops work for reasons of safety (Article 52).
  • Workers cannot be fired or retaliated against for criticizing or reporting their employer for work safety concerns, or for refusing orders to perform unsafe work (Article 51).
  • Employers must provide employees with proper safety equipment suitable to the nature of their work, and keep that equipment up-to-date and in working order (Articles 32, 33).
  • Employers must also provide safety training, and not allow any worker who has not had proper training to work on the job site (Article 25).
  • Employers must purchase work-related injury insurance for all employees (Article 48).
  • The trade union may monitor workplace safety conditions, raise suggestions, and participate in the investigation of workplace accidents (Article 57).
  • Workers have the right to participate in the management of work safety through the trade union. When a company changes its work safety guidelines it should take into account the suggestions of the trade union (Article 5).
  • Journalists and other media workers have the right to report on violations of workplace safety for the purposes of educating the public (Article 74).

In short, the law places the onus on employers to protect employees and guarantee a safe working environment, and gives workers and trade union officials the right to monitor and participate in the management of work safety. In reality, however, employers are free to ignore their obligations and employees are often unware of their rights regarding work safety. Moreover, trade union officials are usually under the sway of management and will not intervene to report or remedy safety violations.

It is the responsibility of local government officials, under the overall purview of the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS), to ensure that all workplaces comply with work safety regulations. However, most local government offices are understaffed and have little time or incentive to carry out routine workplace inspections. Officials spend most of their time investigating and writing up reports on the accidents that occur within their jurisdiction. Just about the only time SAWS officials do exercise any power is in the immediate aftermath of a major disaster when draconian and heavy-handed measures are sometimes used to crackdown on violators.

The government’s approach to work safety accidents can best be described as reactive and coercive. Very little happens until a major accident, after which local officials go into crisis containment mode. The two main concerns of the government are to determine the cause of the accident and punish the guilty parties, business owners and local safety officials alike. Within two weeks of the 2015 Tianjin port explosions, for example, 12 people were arrested and 11 officials investigated for dereliction of duty or abuse of power. Tianjin was however an extreme example and, in many cases, the guilty can go unpunished, especially after small-scale accidents when very little remedial action is taken.

When work safety inspections do occur, in the wake of an accident, business owners are usually well-prepared and can sometimes persuade inspectors to turn a blind eye to safety violations with gifts and other advantages. Even if businesses are cited for violations, very little follow up action is taken and businesses can carry on as normal without making any substantive changes to their production regime. It is not unusual for accidents to occur in hazardous workplaces that had either recently “passed” inspection or had been cited for violations but taken no action.

Moreover, the possibility of heavy fines (between five million and 20 million yuan for incidents involving more than 30 deaths) and threat of imprisonment can sometimes encourage business owners and local officials to collude to cover-up accidents and deaths when they do occur, especially in more remote mining areas where there are not many witnesses. Mine owners have been known to hide corpses and pay off victims’ relatives in order to ensure they keep quiet. Local government officials will happily turn a blind eye to such subterfuge because reporting the accident to their superiors would only create trouble. See CLB’s report Bone and Blood: The Price of Coal in China for more details.

With the massive growth in the use of smart phones and social media however, it is becoming increasingly difficult for employers to hide or cover up accidents and work hazards. And, as we discuss below, workers themselves are beginning to take collective action to demand safer working conditions.

Mapping workplace accidents in China

The Chinese government’s official figures on workplace accidents present a generalised picture in which work safety is continually improving. The official picture is deliberately vague and opaque and lacks important details about the nature of workplace hazards, the most at-risk industries and the most common causes of death and injury. This lack of transparency prevents the public from assessing and understanding the real problem areas in work safety in China.

In December 2014, China Labour Bulletin launched a Workplace Accident Map to track and collate workplace accidents in China. The map is compiled using Chinese media reports and government records, using as a baseline for inclusion an incident with at least one worker death or impacting on three or more workers, either through injury or otherwise, for example, being trapped in a coal mine or forced to evacuate from a fire.

By the end of 2017, we had logged more than 1,500 incidents on the map. This is of course only a tiny proportion of the actual number accidents but it is sufficient to give a fairly detailed and nuanced breakdown of workplace accidents and safety hazards across China.

Official government reports and statistics tend to focus on major accidents but CLB’s Workplace Accident Map shows that 90 percent of all incidents involve less than ten worker deaths; accidents categorized by the government’s Regulations on the Reporting, Investigation and Disposition of Work Safety Accidents (生产安全事故报告和调查处理条例) as “ordinary” or “large.”

The most common type of accident (as classified on the map) is a structural or mechanical failure, which accounts for 29 percent of the total. Around two thirds of those accidents occur in the construction industry, typically involving the failure of lifting equipment or a scaffolding collapse. The deadliest structural failure recorded on the map thus far occurred on November 2016 during the construction of a power plant in Fengcheng, Jiangxi, when the collapse of a scaffolding tower led to the deaths of 74 workers. Nine people including the company chairman and chief engineer were arrested soon after the collapse.

Common types of work accident in China

About 14 percent of accidents recorded on the map involve motor vehicles, with sanitation workers making up the vast majority of victims in those incidents. Sanitation workers often begin their jobs in the early hours of the morning when it is dark and drivers are not expecting to encounter people on the road. Other factors like icy roads and intoxicated drivers increase the risk of accidents, indeed, almost ten percent of all sanitation worker deaths are caused by drunk drivers. In one tragic example, five sanitation workers were killed and another two badly injured when they were hit by a car on a highway in the northern city of Harbin at five o’clock in the morning on 22 December 2017. The road was icy and the driver reportedly had a blood alcohol count of 146.19mg/100m, nearly twice the legal limit. He was arrested by the police.

Many sanitation workers are elderly, making them more vulnerable to injury or death in the event of an accident. Elderly workers have an additional problem in that they often cannot claim injury compensation and their families cannot claim death benefits because they were beyond the statutory retirement age, as in the case of Wang Shoucun, a 70-year-old sanitation worker who was killed by a vehicle while on the job. The local government classified his position as a “service provider” with no formal relationship with the company he worked for and therefore not eligible for work-related injury compensation.

While not as common as structural and mechanical failures or accidents involving motor vehicles, explosions and workplace fires usually involve far more casualties, cause far more damage, and attract far more attention and scrutiny than smaller accidents. This was certainly the case on 12 August 2015 when firefighters responded to a fire that had broken out in a warehouse in the Binhai port district of the coastal city of Tianjin. The firefighters were unaware that the warehouse was being used to illegally store hazardous materials which combusted with incredible force when the young, inexperienced firefighters doused the blaze with water. The explosions killed 173 people including 104 firefighters, the youngest of who was just 17-years-old.

A lone firefighter in the aftermath

A lone firefighter in the aftermath of the Tianjin disaster, which killed 173 people and left almost 800 injured. Photo: China Daily

The Tianjin tragedy revealed the flagrant and widespread disregard for safety laws in China, particularly regulations pertaining to the storage of hazardous chemicals and zoning. In the aftermath of the blast, the government identified about 1,000 chemical production facilities that had been located too close to residential areas, and ordered their immediate closure or relocation. This, however, did little to stop major explosions. Just 11 days after the Tianjin explosion, there was an explosion at a chemical plant in Zibo, Shandong that killed one worker and injured nine others, and one week later, a chemical plant in the city of Dongying, also in Shandong, exploded killing 13 workers and injuring 25 others.

According the map data, around a third of all explosions occur in the manufacturing sector. Accidents in this sector range from the explosion of heavy equipment like boilers or furnaces, to the combustion of volatile commodities such as fireworks and other explosives. Explosions most often occur when machinery is poorly maintained or misused or when factories are operating without a permit or exceed the scope of their capacity. For example, a fireworks factory in Henan that exploded in 2016 killing ten workers was operating illegally. The most deadly factory explosion in recent history occurred in August 2014 when at least 146 workers were killed in an explosion at an automotive components factory in Kunshan. In that case, the factory building was not properly ventilated, leading to the build-up of highly combustible dust particles.

There have been several large-scale factory fires over the last decade including the fire at a poultry processing plant in Jilin in 2013 that killed 119 workers. In nearly all major fires, exits were blocked, there was a lack of fire-fighting equipment and the workers had not received any training on fire prevention or what do in the event of an emergency.

Mass poisonings are actually more common than fires in China’s factories but they rarely make the headlines. The best known case occurred in 2010 when scores of workers at a factory in Suzhou producing iPhones, among other products, were poisoned by the chemical n-hexane, which was used to clean touch screens. Workers complained of headaches, dizziness, weakness and pains in their limbs. At least 62 workers required medical care and several of them spent months in hospital.

Repair and maintenance workers are also at risk from chemical exposure, usually due to the build-up of toxic gasses like methane in confined spaces such as sewers. In one typical example, in April 2016 a property management company subcontracted a sewer cleaning project to a company who sent a team of three workers to the job site. When one worker lost consciousness below ground, the other two attempted to rescue him but they too were overcome by the toxic gasses and all three died. As in many similar cases, the workers were unaware of the risks they were facing and lacked the protective equipment they needed.

Other common types of accident that are not specifically categorized on the map include falling from heights, which is an especially common problem in the construction industry where many workers are not properly tethered or lack the safety equipment needed to secure them. Construction workers are also a constant risk of being killed or injured by falling materials and equipment. Electrocution is likewise another major hazard for construction workers who often lack proper training or have to use sub-standard or faulty equipment.

As can be seen from the chart below, construction is by far the most dangerous occupation in China, accounting for more than one third of all accidents. The industry has such a bad safety record that even though wages are rising, construction companies are finding it almost impossible to attract new workers to the profession, which is now dominated by middle-aged and elderly men who cannot find work elsewhere.

Distribution of work accidents in China across industrial sectors

Despite a dramatic reduction in deaths and accidents, coal mining remains a highly dangerous occupation, not just in terms of accidents but in the long-term damage to miners’ health caused by breathing in coal dust, leading to black lung disease or pneumoconiosis, which is still by far the most prevalent occupational disease in China today.

Occupational health and safety

Occupational Illness

In November 2017, Li Zhaoqian, the deputy head of SAWS announced that 2018 would be the “year of enforcement of occupational health.” Li declared a “war” on work hazards such as poisonous chemicals and harmful particulate matter like coal dust by stepping up fines and threatening business owners with closure. While the SAWS initiative is to be commended, it does raise questions about the extent to which laws and regulations related to occupational health were being enforced prior to 2018.

Chinese law recognises a broad array of occupational diseases, with ten major categories and 132 specific illnesses, outlined in the 2011 Occupational Illness Law and in the 2013 Categories and Catalogue of Occupational Diseases. Major categories include pneumoconiosis, radiation-related illnesses, poisoning, etc.

Despite the detailed list of occupational diseases, Chinese workers routinely face an uphill battle getting their illness officially recognised as work-related because they cannot prove an employment relationship with a particular employer or that the disease was contracted at a time when they were employed there. A large proportion of mine and construction workers are rural migrants who do not have proper contracts and often only work at one location for a short period of time. Pneumoconiosis can take years to develop and victims are often unaware that they have contracted the disease until it is fully developed and incurable. As a consequence, only about ten percent of the estimated six million workers with pneumoconiosis have had their condition officially certified as an occupational illness.

Death from pneumoconiosis is slow and painful, and hospital treatment is a major financial burden for workers and their families, often amounting to more than 100,000 yuan over the course of several years. Victims find it very difficult to get paid employment and have no option but to borrow money from family or even loan sharks in order to pay for medical treatment.

In CLB’s 2013 research report, Time to Pay the Bill: China’s obligation to the victims of pneumoconiosis, we estimated that adequate care for all of China’s estimated six million workers with pneumoconiosis would cost approximately 250 billion yuan per year, approximately the same amount spent on vehicle purchases by government officials in 2011. However, most local governments are reluctant to pay workers with pneumoconiosis anything more than a basic charitable handout. As a result, workers have been forced to take collective action to get the work-related injury compensation they deserve.

The Leiyang construction workers in Shenzhen

The Leiyang construction workers in Shenzhen, 2009

In the summer of 2009, 180 former construction workers from Leiyang in the southern province of Hunan travelled back to Shenzhen to demand compensation for the pneumoconiosis they had contracted working on the city’s construction sites in the 1990s. After a sustained campaign that gained considerable media attention, the Leiyang workers received a total of 14 million yuan in compensation, with individual pay-outs ranging from 70,000 yuan to 130,000 yuan depending on the severity of the illness. Within a few years however, nearly all the money was gone and the workers who were still alive were struggling just to get by. “I have spent almost all of the compensation and now I don’t know what to do. I have no real aspirations anymore. We just live from day to day,” worker Xu Zuoqing told a Chinese television documentary in 2013.

Workers with pneumoconiosis who take collective action to demand compensation are often harassed and even detained by local authorities who view them as trouble makers. Workers from lead and zinc mines of Ganluo county in Sichuan had been trying for the best part of decade to get compensation when one of them was sentenced to ten days in administrative detention for trying to contact the provincial party secretary during a visit to Ganluo in 2016.

Factory workers have also taken collective action over occupational illness. In the summer of 2017, for example, 150 painters at a German-owned factory in Shenzhen demanded medical check-ups when the boss announced the factory’s and relocation. The workers had developed persistent headaches after working for years without any proper safety equipment. When the boss refused to give employees medical checks, or the compensation they demanded, around 2,000 workers went out on strike. Six months later, about one hundred workers at Eurotec Electronics in the nearby city of Zhongshan went on strike on 6 December in protest at dangerous working conditions. About 80 percent of the workforce had complained of dizziness, headaches, coughing, weakness and blurred vision after the factory relocated to a new facility in September. Workers bought their own testing equipment and soon discovered that levels of dangerous chemicals like formaldehyde were three to ten times higher than the recommended safe levels.

Dangerous living conditions

The use of traditional factory dormitories has declined dramatically over the last decade: In 2011, around half of all migrant workers lived in dormitories or on their job sites, and only 35 percent lived in rented accommodation outside the workplace, according to the National Bureau of Statistics annual report on migrant workers. In 2016, however, the same annual survey put the proportion of migrant workers living in rented accommodation at more than 60 percent, while only 13.4 percent lived in housing provided by their employer.

This change is partly explained by the closure of many old factories and the growth of employment opportunities for young workers in the service sector that do not provide accommodation. However, many factory workers now choose to live outside in order to have greater privacy and the chance to live together with family. On the downside, this also means higher rents, poor living conditions and often increased safety hazards. Cheng Huifeng, for example, chose not live in the Foxconn complex in Zhengzhou where she worked. Instead, she rented a small apartment with her husband in a nearby village across the railway tracks. On 19 August 2016, she was late for her night shift. The underpass from the village to the factory was flooded and she had to climb over the railway fence and walk across the tracks. In her haste, she did not see the train approaching and was killed instantly.

Many old factory dormitories were themselves fire traps but living conditions for workers outside can be even more dangerous. The Daxing fire in the southern outskirts of Beijing that killed 19 people including several children on 18 November revealed the squalid and dangerous conditions that many workers now have to live in. The victims, many of whom worked in nearby garment factories, lived three or four crammed into a room of around ten metres square with no central heating despite night-time temperatures having already dropped to below zero.

Firefighters inspect the burnt out Gathering Good Fortune Building in Daxing

Firefighters inspect the burnt out Gathering Good Fortune Building in Daxing. Photo: China Daily.

Construction workers and miners very often have no choice but to live in whatever substandard dwelling their boss provides because there is no affordable accommodation anywhere near the work site. All too often, the accommodation provided puts them in a very vulnerable position. In August 2015, at least 65 migrant workers and their family members were killed when a massive landslide devastated a small jerry-built mining community in Shaanxi. On 1 December 2017, a fire broke out in the early hours of the morning at a building undergoing renovation in Tianjin. More than 20 workers were living on site and were caught in the blaze. Ten died, and five more were injured.

Death and injury due to overwork

Serious physical and mental health problems stemming from overwork have been a long-standing issue in China. Technology giant Huawei, for example, came under scrutiny in 2008 when at least six employees killed themselves or died under mysterious circumstances within two years. Many commenters at the time blamed the company’s high-pressure “wolf culture” for the employees’ deaths.

And it is not just high-profile companies that demand excessive work hours from their employees. In a 2017 survey of white collar workers by employment website Zhaopin, a third of all workers said (apart from national holidays) they took no vacation at all, while another 25 percent took only one to five days’ vacation each year. Nearly half of the respondents did no exercise or had little time for leisure activities outside of work.

The overwhelming majority of Chinese citizens suffer from sleep disorders, for which pressure from work is a major factor, according to a 2017 report by the Xinhua news agency. Another report by the China Daily said more than 60 percent of Chinese citizens don’t get enough sleep, adding that this can cause long term health problems like cardiovascular disease, anxiety and depression. Over half a million people die from heart attacks each year in China, and work-related stress is a major factor, according to a CCTV report; Dr. Zhang Shu of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences warned of the alarming increase in the number of young people that die from heart attacks, and linked these deaths directly to stress at work.

Death from overwork, or karōshi to borrow the Japanese term, is reportedly widespread in China although statistics on the phenomenon are scarce and unreliable. A 2016 Xinhua report stated that over 600,000 workers die from overwork each year. An estimate from a decade earlier in 2006 guessed that the number was over one million. It is difficult to prove that deaths are the direct result of overwork and as such it is extremely problematic for bereaved families to claim compensation. In 2015, sanitation worker Deng Deming collapsed while sweeping the streets of Shenzhen. Even though Deng reportedly had insurance, his employer initially refused to help his grieving family apply for work-related injury compensation because it claimed that he had died outside of work hours. His daughter Deng Liehong was outraged:

 

Shame on them! My father died wearing the company uniform, he was even holding a broom in his hand! The boss said the working day starts at 6:00 am, and it is a lie! My father had to start to work at 3:00 simply because there was too much to do. If he couldn’t finish the job by 11:00 in the morning, the company would fine him 100 yuan.

 

Conclusions and recommendations

Workplace accidents for the most part involve just one or a handful of people and often go unnoticed by the public. Over the course of a year however they add up in the tens of thousands. Chinese government officials are clearly aware that work safety is a major issue; unfortunately, their focus still seems to be on the prevention of high-profile accidents rather than guaranteeing a safe environment of all workers on a day-to-day basis. In his address to the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, President Xi Jinping stated:

 

We will promote safe development, and raise public awareness that life matters most and that safety comes first; we will improve the public safety system and the responsibility system for workplace safety; we will take resolute measures to prevent major accidents, and build up our capacity for disaster prevention, mitigation, and relief.

 

In order to really improve work safety in China, there has be greater enforcement of existing regulations, not just in the immediate aftermath of a disaster but on a regular basis with government officials adopting a constructive, problem solving approach, rather than just slapping fines on business owners who are not in compliance. More importantly, there has to be a fundamental change in labour relations in the workplace in order to prevent employers from forcing employees to work in a dangerous environment and to ensure that workers are properly cared for and compensated when accidents do occur. In particular, the trade union needs to play a far more constructive and proactive role in work safety rather than just providing “psychological consultations” and handing out post-disaster self-help handbooks, as the Tianjin Municipal Trade Union Federation did in the aftermath of the August 2015 explosions

China Labour Bulletin recommends the following concrete measures:

  • Ensure there is greater transparency on workplace safety so as to give policy makers, civil society and ordinary citizens the knowledge they need to assess risks and formulate remedial measures. National and local government statistics on workplace accidents and known hazards should be openly available to the media and the public without precondition.
  • Guarantee labour contracts and work-related injury insurance for all workers, as required by law, so that in the event of injury, workers can prove they have an employment relationship and pursue claims for work-related injury compensation more easily.
  • Introduce a worker-run health and safety committee in all workplaces, with directly elected representatives who can monitor and remedy known work hazards and ensure that the employer is in compliance with the law.
  • Ensure that there are democratically-elected and democratically-run trade union branches in all workplaces, especially in new service industries that rely on flexible labour. This would give trade union officials, who are too often isolated in their regional offices, a much greater connection to ordinary workers.
  • Once established in the workplace, trade unions should make work safety a top priority. Union officials should ensure that employees are properly trained and have the safety equipment they need to perform their assigned tasks. They should encourage workers to raise safety concerns and protect whistle-blowers from management reprisals. Once hazards are detected, the trade union should act immediately to rectify the situation, and demand that production be shut down if necessary.
  • Outside the workplace, the government should take action to tackle the dangers associated with substandard housing. Local governments should build affordable housing for low-income working families. In addition, local governments need to relax the restrictions on access to education, healthcare and social services for rural migrant workers. These obstacles add to the already considerable financial burden of living in major cities and force migrant workers to accept potentially hazardous accommodation.

In the three decades since the infamous Zhili Toy Factory fire in Shenzhen in 1993, which killed 87 young migrant women workers and injured 47 others, the government’s approach to work safety has remained basically the same: Reacting to major disasters with heavy-handed and coercive measures that do little to get to the heart of the problem or create a genuine safety culture in the workplace.

Accident and death totals have declined from the horrific peaks of the early 2000s, however that has as much to do with economic factors as government policy. If China is to create a truly safe working environment, then a fundamental change is needed in government policy, labour relations and the role of the trade union.

This article was first published in January 2018.

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