Market economy induces severe industrial hazards             Zhang Kai


      With China keenly pressing ahead the market economy which goes after optimum economic efficacy, labour safety has become a critical issue. Lately, the government has been forced to embark on a national inspection of production safety in an attempt to contain major accidents and hazards.

      The Emergency Circular issued by the State Council on 7 August 2000 pointed out the gravity of the problem. Within a period of ten days in late June 2000, a series of major accidents had occurred: 130 people died in a ship wreck in Hejiang County, Sichuan Province on June 22; 49 people died in a plane crash of the Wuhan Airline Company; 38 people died in an explosion of a fireworks factory in Jiangmen City, Guangdong Province on June 30; 10 people died in an explosion of a firecrackers factory in Dianjiang County, Chongqing Municipality.

      For years, industrial and traffic accidents have been rampant, with a mortal casualty of around 100,000 people every year. Of this, about 16,000 were workers whose deaths were induced by industrial and mining accidents. Chinas output of raw coal is about one-fifth in the worlds output, yet the casualty figure is four-fifths of the worlds casualty figure.

      According to the State Coal Industrial Bureau, every year, there are about 70 incidents of mining accidents in which over 10 people died. This means an incident every five days. In 1996, coal output in China was 1.374 billion tons, with 10,015 mine workers dead in accidents. In the USA, the figure was 38 deaths for a coal output of 0.96 billion tons. In 1998, Chinas output was 1.22 billion tons, with 7,377 workers dead in accidents. The death rate was 6.04 persons per 1 million tons of coal output. The casualty rate in China was 200 times that of the USA.

      Incomplete statistics show that there are around 380,000 hazardous or poisonous industrial enterprises in China. According to a survey conducted by the Health Ministry on 1,426 foreign invested enterprises, 37.2% involved occupational hazards in the process of production, and 34.7% of workers were exposed to such hazards. Up to the end of 1998, pneumoconiosis patients in the whole country amounted to 550,000, of which 130,000 have died. This equaled the total number of pneumoconiosis patients in the whole world. In China, the patients are growing at a rate of 15,000 to 20,000 a year.

      The number of people poisoned was also big. According to incomplete statistics by the health authorities, occupational poisoning took the lives of hundreds every year, and jeopardized the health of thousands. In 1999, the number increased by 47% as compared to 1998.

      Apart from the lack of legislature to monitor occupational health problems, the actual situation of small and medium township enterprises in violation of production safety and health standards has been very acute. According to a survey of the Health Ministry in the early 1990s, industrial hazards existed in 83% of township enterprises, 34% of workers in township enterprises were in contact with dust and poisonous stuff, and occupational hazard patients amounted to 15.78% of the workforce.


      Another major hazard is the danger of the same building housing the factory, warehouse and workers quarters. Fires have broken out and the casualties have been high. Some examples are: on 19 Nov 1993, a fire broke out in Zhili Toy Factory in Shenzhen and 83 workers were killed; on 16 June 1994, a fire broke out in Yuxin Dyeing and Textile Factory in Zhuhai and the next day the building collapsed, causing 93 deaths.

      Long working hours, fatigue and lack of safety protection equipment have also caused numerous accidents to occur. According to a report by Yang Cheng Evening News on June 19, quoting Nanjing Daily News, in two townships in Leqing City, Zhejiang Province, privately run enterprises use cheap and unsafe machinery. The two hospitals in Leqing City had a record of stitching severed fingers for 14 workers per day, treating over 5,000 workers during the year. The Workers Daily on March 2 also reported on the situation in a village of severed fingers, where in a village alone were hundreds of casualties, and it was said that severed fingers could fill up a basket.

      There may be a correlation between the hundreds of thousands victimized by industrial hazards and accidents and the high suicide rate in China. Shenzhen SEZ Daily reported on May 27 that the suicide rate in China ranked high in the world, with 19.58 out of 100,000 population (the world figure was 15.23 out of 100,000). Of the worlds suicide cases, 42% happened in China.

      The Workers Daily of March 13 reported that some employers signed Life and Death Contracts with workers, stating that workers would receive only wages but no compensation for whatever injuries or casualties they might suffer. As most workers in lowly paid and hazardous jobs are peasants from the countryside, they constitute a vulnerable labour force and a vast reserve labour army, and the ill or injured are simply sent back home. They are not covered by either the medical insurance schemes or labour insurance schemes. According to reports of newspapers in mainland China, the fees of medical care have soared in the last decade. In the early 1990s, the average outpatient fee was 10 yuan (US$1.20) and hospitalisation fee was 400 yuan. By 1997, they were respectively 60 yuan and 2,300 yuan. In addition, 80% of the states medical and health resources are in urban cities, with two-thirds concentrated in large hospitals. It has become simply unaffordable and unavailable to the rural working masses.

      Before the economic reform of 1978, workers were lauded as the master of the country, even if sometimes it was lip service. The economic reform has given autonomy to the management of the enterprises, and now it is difficult to find even propaganda about workers rights or workers power in the enterprises and in society. Trade unions are powerless on matters of occupational health or safety. The Labour Laws cannot offer protection. With such intensification of contradictions and tensions, it requires the effort of both workers and groups working for workers welfare to improve on the situation and fight for workers rights.


20 August 2000