News / Asia

China Factory Blasts Highlight Gaps in Workplace Safety

Family members cry at a caring centre for relatives of victims of a factory explosion, in Kunshan, Jiangsu province, August 3, 2014. Family members cry at a caring centre for relatives of victims of a factory explosion, in Kunshan, Jiangsu province, August 3, 2014.
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Family members cry at a caring centre for relatives of victims of a factory explosion, in Kunshan, Jiangsu province, August 3, 2014.
Family members cry at a caring centre for relatives of victims of a factory explosion, in Kunshan, Jiangsu province, August 3, 2014.
Shannon Van Sant

A massive explosion that killed at least 75 people and wounded 186 at a Chinese metal works plant is highlighting how the country continues to struggle with worker safety.

Chinese state media say the explosion at a metal works plant in Jiangsu happened early Saturday when a fire ripped through the factory floor. The plant manufactured auto parts and is one of the suppliers for American car company General Motors.

An initial Chinese government probe indicated that the explosion might have been caused by dust which ignited inside the workshop, where workers were polishing hubcaps. The fire destroyed most of the factory’s roof.

Enforcement

Geoffrey Crothall of China Labor Bulletin said Chinese laws exist to ensure worker safety, but they are not enforced. “The explosion at the factory in Kunshan illustrates once again that although there are many laws and regulations outlining health and safety standards in the workplace those standards are not properly enforced by local authorities,” he stated.

As authorities investigate the incident at Zhongrong Metal Products plant, General Motors released a statement saying it has no relationship with Zhongrong. GM said the company is a subcontractor for the “Dicastal” company that GM purchases car components from. GM said under its agreement with Dicastal, all subcontractors are obligated to follow local health and safety codes.

Crothall said western companies are limited in what they can do to enforce safety standards at their Chinese suppliers. “They don’t own the factory, they don’t have people on the ground. They don’t understand exactly what the work practices are at these factories,” he said.

Previous incidents

On Monday, another massive fire broke out at a petrochemical plant in Gansu Province. Authorities suspect the blaze was triggered by a leak at an air separation unit. The fire was later contained with no casualties.

Last Thursday, also at a chemicals factory and in Jiangsu Province, a fire broke out at a plant where several barrels of chemicals were being stored. No casualties were reported in that incident.

Worker safety has been a persistent issue in China. Last year a fire at a poultry market killed 119 people. In 2011, two explosions at factories manufacturing Apple products were caused by aluminum dust.

Better protection

Crothall said workers have begun demanding greater protection through China’s existing official trade union. “Now we are increasingly seeing that the official trade union in China, there is only one official trade union, does take a more proactive stance in ensuring workers rights and interests are protected,” he said.

Following Saturday’s explosion President Xi Jinping has demanded a full investigation and Premier Li Keqiang is demanding regular safety checks at factories throughout the country.

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