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China: Safety last?

Building collapse
Enforcement of safety standards has taken a backseat with China's rapid development  

By Lisa Weaver
CNN Beijing

(CNN) -- More than two decades into the swing of economic reform, the pursuit of profit often drives construction and production too fast for safety regulators to keep up with -- and China's labor force is paying the price.

China's mines are among the most dangerous in the world, leading authorities to push for better, more enforceable regulations.

Meanwhile entertainment and shopping facilities often go up so fast that basic fire safety is overlooked -- a point brought painfully home to the relatives of more than 300 people who died in a blaze the day just after Christmas 2000 in the city of Luoyang in Henan province.

It was among the worst fires of its kind in the past decade and was made all the more deadly because of the poisonous gases created when building materials in the lower floors of the building rose to suffocate party goers in a top floor disco.

A few who dared to jump survived -- most died of smoke inhalation. Many of the bodies were found piled at the disco's only fire exit.

It was locked.

Last year's disco fire in Luoyang claimed more than 300 lives  

More than 300 people crammed into the ill-ventilated room with no fire escapes and no sprinklers.

Grieving relatives hit the streets in the days that followed, peacefully protesting local inaction when it became clear the building had repeatedly failed fire inspection, yet had been allowed to operate.

Thousands of angry relatives in the streets of Luoyang and lining up at the morgue to identify the bodies of their loved ones reminded authorities that a lack of official accountability could galvanize public sentiment.

Arrests were made and an investigation launched.

A nationwide safety campaign was announced in the days that followed -- but as in many other cases it was clear that prevention, lay not in more regulations but in more consistent enforcement.

Six years earlier, in December 1994, 323 people, most of them children, died in a concert hall blaze in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China's far west.

Just a month before that, 233 were killed in a dance hall in Liaoning province, many of them crushed or asphyxiated inside emergency exits that were chained shut.

In China's worst fire on record, nearly 700 died in a 1977 blaze in Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

Lethal mines

Thousands of miners die every year in illegal Chinese mines  

Then there are China's mines -- among the most dangerous workplaces in the world.

In the worst recent mining disaster in September 2000, 107 miners were killed in a mine explosion in the southern province of Guizhou.

The will to improve mining safety, if not always the methods, is high on the authorities' agenda.

In southern China alone, nearly 3,000 coalmines have been closed in the past two years.

The safety sweep was a reaction to the high casualties suffered by Chinese miners.

The problem, though, lies mostly in the country's thousands of small, privately managed mines.

Many of the mines closed by authorities have subsequently been reopened by their owners, eager to cream off the profits to be had from China's insatiable demand for energy.

Local corruption and the payment of backhanders often means officials are willing to look the other way.

Lax industrial safety

China's labor force has had little legal fallback in the event of injury
China's labor force has had little legal fallback in the event of injury  

China's official union umbrella group, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions has been lobbying more actively for worker safety in recent years, giving the issue a public face inside China's network of state run enterprises and factories.

In these more established factories as well as in privately run enterprises, the devastating human cost of cutting safety corners is increasingly hard to hide.

In early 2001 a young woman who lost both arms in a Shenzhen factory was awarded China's largest compensation payout.

The landmark resolution was a sign that legal redress may begin to curb unsafe labor practices where regulations have failed.

The Shenzhen Futian District Court in February ruled that the Jinlong Woolen Down Cloth Factory pay 29 year old Liu Tao HK $475,000 in damages.

But Liu was lucky.

Legal aid offices in China are flooded with cases of migrant laborers who suffer horrific injuries on the job, but often have no redress in a legal system just beginning to grapple with civil claims.

China lacks an effective monitoring network for safety abuses and efforts to set up independent labor unions are often met with arrest.

In one case in late 2000 Cao Maobin, an electrician in a state-owned silk factory in Jiangsu Province, lead co-workers to lobby for better safety protection.

He was detained and subsequently held in a psychiatric facility.




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