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Report: Workplace Accidents Kill Thousands Yearly in China - 2003-10-23

Despite efforts to improve safety conditions in factories and mines, the Chinese government says the number of workplace deaths is rising dramatically.

China's Work Safety Administration said the number of work-related fatalities during the past nine months jumped by nine percent compared with the same period last year. Officials said more than 11,000 people have died in factories and mines in 2003.

China has among the world's worst records of workplace safety. Workplace fatality figures are far higher than in most industrialized countries, like the United States, where the Bureau of Labor Statistics says 4,900 people were killed in work-related accidents for all of last year.

China's workplace fatality rate rose, despite efforts by the government to crack down on unsafe workplaces. Officials say they have toughened penalties and increased safety inspections of mines and factories.

Some experts attribute the rise in the number of workplace deaths to China's rapid transition to market economy, in which industrial production has skyrocketed, and private employers are under pressure to push their workers harder.

Dominique Muller with the Hong Kong-based labor rights group, China Labor Bulletin, says another big reason is the lack of enforcement of existing safety laws.

"In a way, yes, private employers are to blame," he said. "But it is a little bit too easy to simply blame the rapid transition to a market economy when really, it is the government's responsibility to oversee health and safety. And the fact is that they are simply not doing it."

Ms. Muller says the government is hindered by a lack of resources, and by corruption.

"There are a lot of mines and factories that are operating basically illegally, with illegally purchased permits and licenses," he explained. "They are not being monitored. There are bribes being given."

As high as the figure of 11,000 deaths seems, some experts say the actual number of workplace fatalities in China is probably higher than what the government is reporting.

But analysts say the fact that officials are disclosing a dramatic rise in the number of workplace deaths is perhaps an indication that China's efforts to reduce workplace accidents is sincere.