Thousands protest in Zhejiang city after safety crackdown closes more than 4,500 shoe factories

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 February, 2014, 5:56pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 5:42pm

Angry protests by thousands of shoemakers broke out in a city in coastal Zhejiang province after an extensive crackdown on workplace safety standards forced the closure of more than 4,500 shoe factories.

Local officials ordered extensive safety inspections of factories in Wenling, a city known for its thriving shoe-making industry, after 16 people were killed when a fire broke out at a shoe factory on January 14.

The local government quickly dispatched task forces to inspect more than 6,000 shoe-making factories in the city, many of them medium and small-sized workshops, ordering the closures of more than 4,500 of those incurring violations, including inadequate firefighting equipment, unlicensed business activities, or building code violations.

The factories found to have breached the safety codes will be allowed to reopen only when all workplace safety standards are met and pass inspection.

Wenling officials said most of the closed factories were small ones, which are often a hotbed of fire hazards that threaten workplace safety. They account for roughly 80 per cent of more than 6,000 shoe factories in the city.

Many shoe-making business owners were angered by the local government action, claiming it was “arbitrary” and heavy-handed,” according to financial news outlet

Thousands of demonstrators besieged the city government office on Monday to protest against the enforcement action, complaining that the closures were driving them out of business, it reported.

Wenling city government did not respond to telephone enquiries from the South China Morning Post on Thursday.

A local businessman surnamed Fan, who owns the Zhubaoli Footwear Company, on Thursday told the Post that the widespread crackdown had dealt a hard blow to the local economy.

“A series of industries related to shoe making in the city have been hugely affected by the scrutiny,” said Fan, whose factory employs about 100 employees.

“Lots of migrant workers have left the city for better jobs elsewhere,” he said. “Recently you hardly even see rice or vegetables vendors.”

Fan said he was moving the factory to a newly rented facility in order to get government approval and expected his business to be able to start operating in one or two months.

A manager of shoe-making Mingwei Company, also in Wenling, said he had no idea when his factory would be able to operate again. “Officials are very picky… if you fail the inspection this time for even a tiny flaw, you’ll have to wait at least a fortnight for another inspection,” he said.

He said many factory owners in the city were disgruntled about the government’s harsh measures as they wondered why the same workplace practices that had been followed for many years were all of a sudden deemed to be inadequate.

“This didn’t even give us any time to adapt to the changes,” he said.

The owner of Weiaofu company, who only gave his surname, Chen, said that after spending the entirety of the past month to rectify facilities at his footwear factory, it had finally passed the government’s safety inspection on Wednesday and was expected it to be fully operational again by the weekend.

But he estimated at least two-thirds of the factories were still in the shutdown phrase because they had not passed the inspection.

Last June, a deadly fire caused by an ammonia gas leak at a poultry factory in northeastern China's Jilin Province killed 120 people and injured scores of others. An investigation later identified that the factory building's many locked doors were main reason for the unusually high casualties, stirring public outrage over workplace safety.