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Victims of the 1993 Zhili Fire

(Originally published in CLB #51, Nov-Dec 1999)


The Zhili Handicraft Factory fire killed 87 young workers and seriously
injured 47 more six years ago. Compensation, promised by the company,
has still not been paid.


Missing Money Missing Lives

Huang Guoguang and Lao Zhaoquan probably don't know it, but
they are linked in history to two US citizens, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck:
all four had a keen interest in the profits to be made from the labour
of young unorganised workers. The latter two entrepreneurs hired migrant
women labourers - mainly from Italy, Eastern Europe and Germany - to stitch
clothes for their Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York back in 1911.
In 1993, Huang and Lao hired mainly female migrant workers from the vast
Chinese interior provinces of Sichuan and Henan to work in a Hong Kong-owned
factory sub-contracted to make toys for the Italian multi-national Artsana
S.p.A./Chicco.


Different Places, Different Faces,
Similar Scenes


On March 25, 1911, when fire broke out at Harris and Blanck's factory,
the panic-stricken women were unable to escape from the flames due to
blocked exits and doors locked to stop the "loss of goods". Many of the
150 workers who died that day threw themselves, some already on fire,
from the workshops on the 9th and 10th floors to certain death on the
street below. Others were overcome by flames as the blaze spread quickly
along corridors piled high with inflammable goods.


Eighty two years later, on the other side of the world, Mr Huang and
Mr Lao had also been concerned with the "pilfering" of goods by their
overworked young employees. So much so that they had seen fit to cover
the factory and dormitory windows with iron bars - the Zhili factory in
Shenzhen was another illegal "three-in-one", an arrangement that saves
on costs by putting the production floor, storage space and workers' dormitory
on three levels of the same building - and locked fire escape doors and
other exits. On November 19, 1993, fire broke out and quickly spread through
the building. Most of the charred remains of the 87 victims of the fire
were piled up in heaps at the locked exits. A further 47 were seriously
injured in the fire.


These tragic events are just two of the thousands of factory fires littering
the history of industrial "development". Almost all of them have two features
in common: they are almost always avoidable; and they almost always involve
criminal negligence. In the Zhili case, Lao and Huang had ignored fire
safety regulations and even bribed inspectors to overlook safety problems.
They received short prison sentences and both are now out of prison, with
Lao Zhaoquan only serving nine months. They are now running a toy factory
in Dongguan, 50 kilometres north of Shenzhen. Approximately 70% of the
factory's products are for the Chicco label.


The Zhili fired attracted a good deal of public attention following similar
fires at the Kader Toy Factory in Thailand which killed 189 and injured
469, and the Gaofu Textile Factory, in Fuzhou in early 1994 in which 64
workers died.(1) In
the absence of effective trade unions in the countries of production,
the Coalition for the Charter on the Safe Production of Toys (Toy Coalition)
was formed in 1994 to try and promote safer production and pursue compensation
for the injured and the relatives of those killed in the fires. The coalition
is composed of more than 60 local, regional and international trade unions,
labour and human rights groups.


After a great deal of pressure and lobbying, in cooperation with Italian
and Hong Kong trade unions and NGOs, Artsana S.p.A./Chicco announced a
small compensation fund for the victims of Zhili. According to a press
release at the time:



"On 28th October 1997, during a public meeting
attended by nearly one thousand people, Michele Catelli, CEO of Artsana
S.p.A./Chicco stated that the firm would take compensatory action after
the death of 87 girls involved in the Zhili factory which
worked for Artsana."(2)



The fund amounted to just 300 million lira to be distributed to 130 victims
and/or their families. Less than US$1,300 each. This decision, announced
with considerable fanfare was made back in late 1997, a full four years
after the fire. Yet as this article is being written, in late December
1999, not one cent has been received by any of the victims and the Toy
Coalition has launched another, increasingly vociferous campaign for justice
and full compensation. Already, the campaigners have successfully closed
down a Hong Kong Chicco shop on a busy shopping Sunday as a result of
small-scale but effective picketing. We plan to continue the campaign
until the money is paid to those it was awarded to.


This is not a simple story of money not going where it ought to go. It
has actually gone, or is going, somewhere else!


After the fund was announced, Artsana S.p.A./Chicco, Assogiocattoli (an
Italian toy manufacturers association) and the Italian trade union federation
CISL stated that while a full list of the victims was being researched,
the money would be left in a Hong Kong account managed by the charity
organisation Caritas Hong Kong for safe-keeping. Meanwhile efforts where
made through various official mainland channels to acquire a list. Despite
the sense of horror that the fire induced in China's people, these efforts
met in the main with a wall of silence from China's authorities. As an
executive director of the Hong Kong Liaison Office - a coalition member
- wrote in correspondence with the CISL international department, "[Our
contact] was told that the officials would certainly not hand over this
matter to any foreign bodies, as this would show up the inadequacy of
Chinese officials". (3)


However, through hard work, contacts in China, and two visits to victims
and their families in the province of Sichuan, the Toy Coalition succeeded
in obtaining the full names and addresses of at least 50 victims, along
with video footage and interviews with some of the injured survivors.
Meanwhile, Artsana S.p.A./Chicco refused to issue any money unless a full
list, officially acknowledged by the Chinese authorities, was made available.


Believing that the money would at least remain with Caritas until the
list was complete, the Toy Coalition kept up the work of forming as complete
a list as possible and remained in correspondence with CISL over the issue
of Artsana S.p.A./Chicco accepting a partial list.


The news that the Toy Coalition received on 18 October 1999 came as something
of a shock. In response to successive enquiries into the possibility of
partial distribution, Artsana S.p.A./Chicco's lawyers replied that the
Fund had been diverted to projects with local partners: three workshops
for artificial limbs and the building of three schools.


Despite impressions that might arise from looking at the government's
spectacular military and space exploration programme, China needs schools
and it needs artificial limbs. But this decision to divert the compensation
money away from the victims is an ignominious misuse of funds desperately
needed by injured young people unable to work and still in need of medical
attention. Chen Yuying was just 17 when she suffered burns on 75% of her
body: the wounds still bleed everyday. "The company is so irresponsible.
It should not have diverted the compensation money set aside for us. We
worked very hard earning only Rmb 200 a month. Now we have nothing," she
said.


It is the view of the Toy Coalition that the lack of a full list is nothing
more than an excuse to use the money for alternative projects. The company
did not even bother to inform those victims whose names it already had
access to. We also believe that everyone involved, except the victims
themselves, bears responsibility for this appalling decision. This includes
ourselves who were taken by surprise after Artsana's announcement. The
coalition intends to keep up the new campaign for justice for the Zhili
fire victims until the day when Artsana S.p.A./Chicco has distributed
every last cent of the promised money to those who most need and deserve
it.


For further information please contact Toy Coalition Coordinator May
Wong
at:


amrc@pacific.net.hk

tel: (852) 23321346
fax:
(852) 23855319


_____________________________________________________________


Notes


(1) Xinhua reports that over 38,000
blazes broke out in the country in 1993. The fires claimed 2,467 lives
and injured over 50,000 people - Asian Labour Update Issue 14.


(2) Press Release from Italian NGO
Centro Nuovo Modello di Sviluppo November 6, 1997


(3) Toy Campaign Dossier No.6/ Special
Issue p 4