Toying with lives

A REPORT into the Thai toy factory blaze which killed 188 workers and injured 300 nearly a year ago contains findings which the Hong Kong factory owners refuse to release.

Hong Kong's Kader chief denies accusations of an international cover-up and claims a report by the world's largest corporate investigations company ''does not tell the real picture''.

Kader commissioned the investigation and report by Kroll Associates within days of the factory fire on May 10 last year.

Hong Kong's Kader Industrial company, which owned 40 per cent of the factory, hired leading public relations firm The Rowland Company and pledged to release the findings of the investigation.

But a year after the blaze and months after the Kroll report was delivered to Kader executives, Kader Holdings chairman, Dennis Ting Hok-shou, said he had no plans to release the document.

''It does not tell the real picture - why should I release it?'' he asked.

''Do you want to talk about the Thai Government's corruption? In that country, life is cheap. You can buy a life for a few hundred US dollars.'' Kroll Associates (Asia) associate managing director, Steve Vickers, said he was surprised by Mr Ting's disregard for the report.

''We had a top team of professionals working on it. We absolutely stand by our results,'' Mr Vickers said.

''Our stock-in-trade is confidentiality and I am contractually obliged to keep the contents of our report, which is the property of Kader, confidential. We're not in a position to release it.'' Mr Ting, who is also Hong Kong Toys Council chairman and Trade Development Council toys advisory committee chairman, initially told the Sunday Morning Post there had been no report received.

He later accepted the existence of the report, detailing causes of the tragic blaze, but said he had never seen a copy.

''I have not seen the report. I was only told some of its contents,'' Mr Ting said from Kader's Kowloon Bay headquarters.

''It is my own right as to why I should not [request a copy]. I personally felt that it's not the real situation.'' Mr Ting also refused to discuss the Thai police warrant issued for the arrest of Kader's managing director Kenneth Ting Woo-shou, who occupies an office in the same building.

''You're touching a sensitive area. I cannot answer you,'' he said.

Mr Ting deflected questions about the cause of the tragedy on to Thai officials.

''I've been in the plastics industry for more than 35 years. I've seen many factory buildings - toy factories, plastics factories - catch fire. None of them break down, even after [burning for] 24 hours or 36 hours.

''The building of that factory in Thailand collapsed after 15 minutes and people who were killed were crushed to death.

''Why don't you go to Thailand and find out [the cause]?'' he said.

Kader has paid $18.18 million in compensation to families of the 188 people killed - mostly young women - and to about 300 workers injured in the stampede to escape before the blazing building collapsed.

Immediately after the blaze, Kader management was reassuring Hong Kong shareholders that the loss of the Thai factory would have little financial impact.

The company handed over compensation after survivors and families of the dead slammed an initial payment of $8 million. Workers' groups rallied in Thailand and Hong Kong and organised international boycotts of Kader toys, calling for adequate compensation and strict enforcement of safety laws.

ASIA Monitor Resource Centre spokesman Tian Chua said victims' families had been left in the dark over the fire. No inquiry report had been released.

''The workers and victims' families accepted the compensation because it was the best they could get under the circumstances. They had been trying for a long time and the company agreed to almost 80 per cent of what they asked for,'' Mr Chua said.

''After the Kader fire the [Thai] Government promised to issue a report after a public inquiry. So far the inquiry seems to have wound up without a word.'' Hong Kong and Thai workers groups are calling for May 10 to be recognised annually as Asia-Pacific Industrial Safety Day in remembrance of the Kader fire victims.

Mr Chua said Hong Kong associations and confederations had drawn up a list of safety guidelines to discuss with toy industry members.

It suggests legally-enforceable safety rules to apply across the region, allowing a Hong Kong-based company to be penalised for risky practices in its factories in China, Thailand or Indonesia.

''The characteristics of the toy industry are cheap labour, manual work and very little technological innovation,'' Mr Chua said.

''Maybe the scale of fires might be less [than the Kader tragedy], they might not lock doors and so on, but the risks the workers encounter have not changed.'' Mr Ting said the proposal was impractical.

''How can a Hong Kong organisation propose a law for international adaptation?'' he asked. ''This is ridiculous. Somebody is out of their minds. It cannot be worked. We can only ask people to observe safety standards.'' Mr Chua said the associations would try to arrange a meeting with the Trade Development Council to put forward safe work practice clauses.

''If they're willing to endorse it as a code of ethics, then we can have the trade unions monitor and receive complaints,'' he said.

''Hong Kong is one of the most important investors in Asia, whether in China, Thailand or Indonesia. Our money is being internationalised, but not our laws,'' Mr Chua said.

''The Government has to take a stronger stance to regulate investment and we in Hong Kong should be concerned about how these companies treat their foreign workers''.

The associations plan a candle-lit vigil at the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry terminal on Tuesday night and will launch a booklet, The Kader Fire And Workers' Resistance, about the fire, implications, causes, management structure and the battle for compensation.