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China Looking for Ways to Improve Work Safety Record  - 2004-09-03

China's work safety record is among the most dismal in the world, with Chinese officials reporting more than 130,000 work-related deaths each year. Scores of international experts are in Beijing for a conference to look for ways of improving worker safety.

International experts say the actual number of people dying in work-related accidents in China may be higher than the official figures indicate. They point out that information is still hard to obtain because the Chinese government considers statistics on industrial accidents a state secret.

In remarks at the conference in Beijing this week, International Labor Organization officials said many developing countries are experiencing an increase in occupational accidents and diseases as a result of rapid industrialization.

China, with its booming economy, is no exception. The government says that of the more than 130,000 reported work-related deaths, 15,000 occurred in mines and factories.

Robin Munro is a spokesman for the China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong organization that monitors workers' conditions in China. He says the central Chinese government has expressed a will to confront the issue of mine safety, but he says enforcement is a major problem at the provincial level, where officials sometimes reopen mines where accidents have occurred before safety issues have been addressed.

"Some of them [mines] are closed temporarily, but what we're finding is that, even when mines have been ordered to be closed down during safety reviews, what happens is that mine owners reopen them a week or two later," says Mr. Munro. "So, in effect, they're operating illegally."

Advocates say corruption is a big part of the problem. They say mine operators often have close relationships with local Communist Party officials, who sometimes get a cut of mine profits in exchange for looking the other way when safety problems surface.

Mr. Munro also says small, private mine owners have to turn a profit or will go out of business, while the government can keep loss making state-owned mines afloat. The private operators are therefore more likely to ignore safety regulations.