`Made in China' label takes toll

But foreign pressure, courts begin to help workers hurt on job

April 03, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SHENZHEN, China -- The industrial revolution that turned "Made in China" into a catch phrase has come at a steep human price and perhaps nowhere is it more painfully apparent than in the apartment of attorney Zhou Litai.

Zhou shares his home with his clients: more than 30 migrant laborers who have lost body parts -- fingers, hands, arms and feet -- in factory accidents.

His living room resembles a hospital ward in wartime. Young men wander about in shirts with empty sleeves. Others shuffle around on prosthetic feet, the soles of their leather work boots scraping softly along the tile floor.

Ma Shuangqing, from central China's Hubei Province, lost his left arm to a lathe built in the 1920s.

"I thought I would come here for a year, make some money and go home," says Ma, 31, repeating the mantra of migrant laborers in south China. "I didn't know I was going to get injured."

Mao Tse-tung once called workers the masters of this country, but today China is among the most dangerous places to work in the world.

Each year, more than 100,000 people die on the job. In 1998, officials say, more than 12,000 laborers were maimed in the factories of this southern boom town alone. The actual number might be twice as many.

This spring, the issue of Chinese working conditions will figure prominently as Congress debates normalizing trade relations with Beijing as a part of China's bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The issue pits organized labor, which fears losing jobs overseas, against big business, which sees China as the world's greatest potential consumer market. It is shaping up as the biggest battle of its kind since passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.

Labor groups such as the AFL-CIO argue that China should not enjoy permanent trading privileges until it improves worker safety and recognizes human rights.

Supporters of the bill, which include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, say increased trade will raise living standards and lead to political and labor reform, as it has in developed countries.

Shenzhen lies in the Pearl River Delta, China's economic engine that runs on foreign investment and migrant labor. The region produces everything from Reebok sneakers and silk blouses for Ralph Lauren to Barbie dolls and Beanie Babies.

Shenzhen's development mirrors the country's industrial revolution over the past two decades. In 1979, it was a fishing community of about 20,000. Today, it is a modern metropolis of glass and steel buildings with a population of 4 million.

Deng Xiaoping, the late Chinese leader, sparked the area's rapid growth by scrapping Mao's planned economy and unleashing market forces.

As factories sprouted from fields, peasants poured in from China's crowded interior seeking better wages.

Common stories

Tens of thousands have lost their limbs or lives in the fulfillment of their ambitions. The story of Huang Lichun is typical.

Huang, a handsome, almost painfully polite man, came in 1997 from Hubei, where he ran a failing tea processing factory.

After working as a security guard, he took a $48-a-month job in the delta's Dongguan City with a company making molds for sneaker soles.

Huang lived in a factory dormitory room crammed with 14 beds where some laborers slept two to a bunk. He often worked 16-hour shifts pouring hot liquid plastic into molds and testing them.

The evening of his injury, he was finishing his second consecutive 18-hour shift and struggling to meet a quota of 60 molds before midnight. As he tried to unblock the plastic dispenser, the machine malfunctioned and clamped down on his hand.

Huang lost some skin, but the damage did not appear too severe, he recalls.

To save money, the factory sent him to a small local hospital instead of a hospital in the provincial capital of Guangzhou. Doctors amputated three fingers and part of his thumb. Physicians later told him they could have been saved, he says.

`Nobody cares'

Huang received some insurance money and reluctantly returned home to face his family. Without his fingers, he couldn't harvest cotton or plant rice. His 13-year-old daughter has to help him wash clothes. He eats with a fork because he can't grasp chopsticks.

"I feel I'm finished," says Huang, who is in his late 20s. "I think China has made a lot of concessions for foreign investors to come here. And if accidents happen, nobody cares."

While stories like Huang's remain commonplace, factories have made small safety improvements because of negative publicity and consumer pressure, according to the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, a labor monitoring group.

In 1993, 87 people died in a Shenzhen toy factory fire after sealed windows and blocked doors prevented their escape.

The government responded by cracking down on the illegal practice of building dormitories on top of workshops, which greatly increased the risk of people dying in fires.

Safety training, though, remains rare.

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