Sweatshops boom but the toll is high

MAINLAND factory workers are risking their lives in Dickensian sweatshops in what has become Hong Kong's neglected backyard - Shenzhen.

Unionists and legislators in the territory last night claimed workers at the mainland factories were forced to endure conditions which had not been seen in Hong Kong since the 1950s and 1960s.

Factory fires have killed more than 170 people in the low-cost manufacturing base in the Pearl River delta over the past 21/2 years.

After a massive blast at a dangerous goods depot in Shenzhen in August, a State Council investigation team reported the municipal government had failed to ensure the fire-prevention work of the Public Security Bureau was up to standard; water supply facilities were too poor to tackle the blaze; and fire-fighting equipment was inadequate.

But three months later, little has been done to remedy the situation. Fire-fighting equipment was still inadequate at Friday's fire at the Zhili toy factory.

Witnesses said rescue workers could not climb up to reach workers trapped on the upper floors because their ladders were not long enough. Residents in the area said the water ran out and firemen had to wait for more water jets to arrive.

It was also reported yesterday that poisonous gases killed two workers and injured 19 others in a plastics and electronics factory in Guangdong. Ventilators had broken down two days before the incident and had not been repaired.

Chief executive of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, Lee Cheuk-yan, described the conditions in most factories as ''shameful''.

''They are typical of a Hong Kong factory in the '50s and '60s, and should not be transferred to China in the '90s,'' he said. ''It is shameful that 30 years on, employers are still allowing conditions like that.'' Earlier this month, China's Vice-Premier Zou Jiahua criticised the authorities in richer regions for ignoring industrial safety in pursuit of economic prosperity.

Mr Zou said 60 per cent of industrial accidents were a product of numb minds, lax discipline, chaotic management and unlawful operation and supervision.

Earlier this year, a group of delegates of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference described the problem of industrial safety in joint ventures and private enterprises as ''acute''.

When Hong Kong manufacturers first started pouring over the border into Shenzhen in the early 1980s, it was for one reason - cheap labour.

The province's economy has charged ahead, raising living standards but leaving little time to worry about workers' safety. Workers are now paying the price for this lax attitude.

According to official reports, the Special Economic Zone experienced a 173 per cent year-on-year increase in deaths from industrial accidents last year. The reports do not state the number of deaths.

In Guangdong, the number of industrial deaths in the first 11 months of 1992 surged 62 per cent from the previous year, according to government officials quoted by the China Daily.

Earlier this year, Beijing disclosed that work-related deaths nationwide last year rose three per cent from 1991 to more than 15,000 people.

''Industrial safety is the last thing that anybody worries about in Shenzhen or anywhere else in the province, for that matter,'' said an executive of a multinational toy company in the area.