Factory fire wounds refuse to heal

They are the victims of China's manufacturing boom, migrant workers injured in a string of blazes at factories that were little more than traps

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 May, 2014, 4:32am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 May, 2014, 6:52pm

On most days for the past two decades, Sun Chengyun has smeared iodine on her knee and ankle and bandaged them.

Almost 21 years ago, the resident of Sansheng village in Mishazi township worked briefly at the Zhili Handicraft Factory in Shenzhen. In November 1993, a massive fire there killed 87 people, injuring 51 more, including Sun.

Scars from the fire cover Sun's neck, back, left arm, leg and foot. Her hands and nails are twisted. The delicate skin on her limbs, especially around the joints, tears when she uses them too much.

Despite the persisting rot of her wounds, Sun said she rarely sought treatment.

"I don't want to be in a hospital again," she said. "I'm sick of it."

Shenzhen, China's first economic special zone, lured flocks of businessmen, mostly from Hong Kong, eager to invest in manufacturing. Today, the state reforms that brought financial success to the Pearl River Delta are being replicated throughout China, helping to make the nation the world's second largest economy and top exporter. The engine's success was built on manufacturing, using a huge pool of cheap labour.

Some of those factories were traps. Since the zone's creation in 1979, there have been numerous factory fires, injuring and killing hundreds of workers.

In other countries, large factory accidents have triggered safety laws and advanced labour rights. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 in New York killed 146 workers, mostly young female immigrants. There, as in many of China's fires, most of the factory's exits were locked. The tragedy sparked a huge strike, prompting changes in building and safety codes and fuelling the expansion of trade unions. It also prompted important building and safety codes, including barring locked doors at work sites.

In 2002, China passed the Safe Production Law, prescribing that all exits at workers' dorms or workshops be unlocked and clear, with exit signs. Many large fires, some triggered by the same safety issues, have happened since.

A blaze at a poultry plant called Baoyuanfeng in Jilin province last year killed 121 people and injured 76 others. Locked exits blocked the escape of several hundred workers. A State Council investigation showed an electrical fault caused the fire, but it attributed the heavy casualty to the factory's negligence in following safety regulations, including safety education to employees, fire drills, and unobstructed exits.

The Zhili Handicraft factory in Shenzhen made toys for the Italian multinational company Artsana. To prevent workers from stealing, factory and dorm windows were covered by iron bars. The fire escapes and three exits were bolted shut.

Some women like Yan Xiaojian travelled 1,500 kilometres by bus to take the new job. Yan, then 17, said all she thought was that she could finally live on her own.

"My dream at that time was to finish school soon and go to work in the south … so we can make money," she said. "I believed the bosses were all very good."

Friend and co-worker Fang Xiaohui said she was startled to see the factory set up.

"When I saw the poor conditions there, I was disappointed. I was not used to it," said Fang, who was then 17.

They each earned just over 300 yuan in two months of work.

Months later, on November 19, 1993, an electrician was using a cable drill in the area used for storing cotton. Some of the factory wiring wasn't properly insulated. When he pulled the power cord, it shorted. Soon flames engulfed the three-storey building, trapping more than 400 female workers, some of them teenagers.

Sun, now 41, had come from Henan's countryside. She never worried about safety or her worker's rights in her few months at work. More than 20 workers lived in a room of about 30 square metres. They worked from 7am to 11pm, with short breaks for lunch and supper.

She was near an exit when dense smoke reached her. "I was just several steps away from [the exit] when I passed out," she said.

Two companions from Fangcheng were engulfed by flames.

Yan Xiaojian was on the first floor when the fire started. She got stuck midway down the stairs. "Those on the ground floor were trying to run upstairs while those upstairs were rushing down. I was soon lifted up by the crowd," said Yan, who was then only 17. She gulped smoke and passed out.

Flames scarred her face and destroyed her breasts.

Fang Xiaohui, then on the second floor, was among the last to learn of the fire. She said she rolled down to the ground floor on top of people's heads before falling unconscious. Many of those upstairs jumped for their lives after firefighters cut through the window bars, she said. Later, her entire right foot and half of her left was removed. She was 17.

The local government's investigation report found that manager Huang Guoguang and Hong Kong businessman Lao Zhaoquan ignored safety regulations and bribed inspectors to overlook problems. They were convicted of negligence and served short prison sentences.

Both Fang and Yan have remained jobless since they left hospital. Sun started working again in 2010 in a Zhengzhou food company as an attendant at the firm's dormitories.

All three women returned to their villages, married poor men and became mothers. They received one-off compensation ranging from 12,000 to 16,000 yuan.

Some victims of the Baoyuanfeng poultry factory plant received far less. Hou Jian and his father-in-law, Tang Libo, both from Dehui in Jilin, escaped the blaze. Days ago, Hou learned through his new boss that the government will compensate him 725 yuan (HK$912) for his care and time off work. Tang, who was in hospital for a week after the fire, didn't receive a penny. He said he did not understand why.

The women of Zhili returned home, and endured stares from villagers. "It was absolutely intolerable in the beginning, but as time passed by I cared less," Fang said. "Let them talk. You can't seal their mouths."


Factory Fires:

August 5, 1993
Shenzhen Anmao Dangerous Objects Storage and Transportation Co.
18 dead
873 injured

November 19, 1993
Shenzhen Zhili Handicraft Factory
87 dead
51 injured

December 6, 2002
Wanbao Coal Mining Co.
Taonan, Jilin
30 dead
No injury data

May 19, 2006
Chuanghui Fabric Co.
Shantou, Guangdong
13 dead
1 injured

June 3, 2013
Baoyuanfeng Poultry Co.
Dehui, Jilin
121 dead
76 injured

Source: State media