Toxic school uniforms add to anger over quality control

Inspection in Shanghai discovers student outfits tainted with carcinogenic dye, and shows that product safety is still a major problem

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 February, 2013, 3:59am

The mainland's primary and middle-school pupils are often dubbed "the country's flowers", but a toxic-school-uniform scandal in Shanghai this week shows they haven't been getting sufficient care from the authorities.

Shanghai Television reported that in a routine inspection of school uniforms, the municipal Bureau of Quality and Technology Supervision found that six out of 22 batches were substandard, including a bunch of school uniforms that contained aromatic amine - a carcinogenic dye.

They were produced by the Shanghai Ouxia Garment Company, operating out of a small workshop in the city's Pudong district.

The district's education authority immediately set out to discover which schools had been its customers, and the authorities confiscated 26,444 sets of school uniforms bought by 21 schools.

Four schools in other Shanghai districts were also found to have ordered uniforms from the same batch.

Of the other five batches of school uniforms that failed quality examinations, one batch had a substandard pH level, three had fibre content that did not match their labels and one had a label that did not conform to requirements.

Shanghai's education authorities have encountered problems with poor-quality school uniforms before, jointly issuing a circular with the municipal quality-inspection authority in 2011 requiring all primary and middle schools to treat the issue as important.

In an inspection in September, fewer than half of the school uniforms tested were up to standard, the China Youth Daily reported.

Schools and the education and quality inspection authorities all have their own excuses for failing to root out substandard school uniforms.

Schools say they are consumers and don't have the capacity to check school uniforms. Education authorities say they only worry about whether the school uniforms are in line with price criteria, and don't intervene in schools' purchases from factories.

An official from a district education department said it sometimes circulated quality-inspection result to schools, but would not check whether they were buying substandard uniforms.

The quality-inspection authority complained that there were too many garment manufacturers, and no companies specially licensed to produce school uniforms. What's more, schools did not co-operate in providing their uniform producers' names, making it difficult for the government to carry out inspections.

Shanghai's municipal government has announced a series of measures to strengthen the supervision of school uniforms, including more frequent quality inspections, centralised purchases by each district rather than through individual schools, the disclosure of more information to pupils' parents, and the recall of any problematic school uniforms.

But why were such strict measures only introduced after the latest toxic uniform scare? And why has Ouxia been chosen by dozens of schools to manufacture clothes for tens of thousands of students in the past few years, despite being blacklisted repeatedly in quality inspections dating back to 2009, according to China Consumer News? And, more broadly, why are products designed for mainland children - from breakfast milk served at schools to school buses and school uniforms - so often beset with quality scandals?

Stronger deterrents are needed to stamp out malpractice and guarantee the safety of products used by pupils.