Lanzhou railway deaths highlight two fundamental issues facing construction workers in China

27 June 2019
For well over a decade now, construction workers have had to contend with two major life- and livelihood-threatening issues – work safety and wage arrears. One incident in western China over the weekend put both these problems into sharp perspective.

At least 24 construction workers died on 29 October when the truck carrying them hit a tunnel wall and overturned. Another four workers were injured in the accident, which occurred on a construction site for the new Chongqing to Lanzhou railway, the official media reported.

The truck was supposed to only carry construction materials but was being used to transport workers to the site, a provincial work safety official in Lanzhou was quoted as saying.

The tunnel construction project was one of the few sections of track actually being worked on after 90 percent of the line’s construction workers had been laid-off because of a lack of funds and project delays, partly caused by additional safety checks ordered by the government after the Wenzhou train crash of 23 July.

Several thousand workers went without pay for several months and several hundred petitioned the railway bureau in Lanzhou before the local government stepped in to pay the roughly 300 million yuan in unpaid wages and raw material costs, Caijing News reported.

In many ways, work safety and the non-payment of wages stem from the same basic problem – the lack of any effective regulation in the construction industry. Workers are usually hired in small groups by gang masters who subcontract from an overall labour contractor, who gets paid by a project manager, who is reliant on the developer and the banks for finance.

The workers usually have no formal employment contract and are at the mercy of the gang master if anything goes wrong, and in nearly every project something goes wrong. If there is a dispute or a delay, the workers are always the first to be sacked and the last to be paid.

Moreover, it is impossible for the local government to properly regulate and supervise work safety precisely because work duties and placements are divided up into so many different areas that no one knows who should be regulating who. In the Lanzhou case, for example, the truck that crashed was reportedly contracted from a local cargo company.

Government officials repeatedly say that work safety and wage arrears are important issues that have to be resolved, and yet all the anecdotal evidence in the Chinese media suggests that the government has been wholly ineffective in tackling them.

Construction workers need to be far better protected both in terms of their safety at work and in guaranteeing their wages. Workers need to have formal employment contracts that include health and work-injury insurance, and their employer should be held legally accountable for their safety at work.
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