A severe accident took place last weekend in Kunshan (very close to Shanghai). Many good articles have covered it and exposed the facts. It was apparently triggered by poor ventilation that allowed dusk to accumulate and cause an explosion.
Over the past few years, very little attention has been given to the topic of worker safety in Chinese factories. The focus of buyers and journalists has been on the following elements:
- Child labor (which is a rare occurrence, like in most communist countries), especially in Samsung’s supply chain.
- Suicides, especially in Apple’s supply chain.
- Excessive working hours (virtually all Chinese factories are above the maximum tolerated by the law).
This time General Motors is the customer. GM has made serious efforts in corporate social responsibility over the past years through programs that… did not aim at improving worker safety at their suppliers’ plants.
Why this accident is just the tip of the Iceberg
What about all the near-misses (similar circumstances across thousands of workshops, which fortunately did not explode)? They are impossible to count.
What about all the smaller accidents that didn’t make the news? They are impossible to count. When a worker is killed (and I would bet it happens several times a week in China’s factories), the employer gives about 1 million RMB to the family and the case is “closed”.
Even without this explosion, what was the life expectancy of the polishing operators? They were working in an environment saturated with thin aluminium dust particles. They could feel the metal in their mouth after a few hours of work, despite wearing a mask. I bet few would have lived beyond 60.
Sometimes we go to factories and gasp at the conditions in which workers do their job. We posted a few examples from a metal factory here.
Workers are unaware of the risks
Uneducated Chinese people are still unaware of many risks. (This is in no way particular to China, and many developing countries are in the same situation.)
For example, many people here don’t even know that smoking cigarettes every day increases their chances of dying of cancer. And, if you have come to China, you probably remember people crossing the street without looking at incoming traffic. Yes, these are the type of folks who work on the production floor of factories.
Some serious manufacturers are providing safety-related training to their workers. But they are still the exceptions. Most factory bosses hate the idea of spending on training for employees who might leave in a few weeks. They haven’t grasped that some are quitting precisely because no training is provided and because working conditions are tough.
There are so many accidents on construction sites that a Shenzhen employer recently decided to resort to provocation by posting a sign reading “if you die, someone else will sleep with your wife, beat your kid, and enjoy your compensation money”. Wow!
Why more and more accidents will make the news… Even though their proportion might decrease.
A few years ago, only NGOs like China Labor Watch and a few newspapers were exposing these cases. Now tens of photos are posted on Chinese social networks within minutes. Naturally, more of these accidents come out in the open.
Will the proportion of accidents go down? One can’t be sure. But the central government is taking action. They have already closed more than 200 metal factories in Jiangsu province. If they apply as much pressure on the local governments for worker safety as they have in the fight against pollution, there will be change.
Factory owners are reluctant to invest in better equipment — for example tables that suck the dust and evacuate it outside the building. They see it as comfort rather than necessity. But new government regulations, along with pressure from workers, will probably bring some change.
New requirements in China supply chains
More factory audits focusing on worker safety will probably be performed. Here are a few simple questions I have been advising buyers to look into:
– Are workers wearing appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment)?
– Are there fire hazards? Is fire prevention taken seriously? (Several tragedies were reported in Bangladesh over the past few years, and I am surprised there are not more accidents of that nature in China.)
– Has factory management done something about the major sources of danger to employees?
In parallel, I guess car manufacturers will apply more pressure for openness and transparency across the supply chain, and will help their key suppliers improve in that regard.
What do you see?