“I told him somebody was going to get his arm caught unclogging the filter. He (the boss) said I had no right to speak,” said Chinese factory worker Li Jihao, quoted in a recent New York Times article by Joseph Kahn. Mr. Li’s boss ignored his concerns, leading to Li having his arm torn off at the elbow in the very same heavy metal press he had seen as a safety risk. The danger came from the cost-cutting method utilized by the boss of using wastewater instead of fresh water for the machine.
Kahn’s article and Li’s words bring up an important (and largely overlooked) issue of human right’s violations in many of China’s factories. According to Kahn, 140,000 in China die every year due to work-related accidents and many more are seriously injured, receiving no compensation for their injuries. In his article, Kahn relates the horrors of the metal factories of the Yongkang province, home to factories for companies such as Bosch, Hitachi, and Black and Decker. The stories of the Yongkang workplaces that Kahn’s subjects relate are horrific tales of hands shredded, arms lost and fingers crushed in industrials hammers that produce thousands of pounds of pressure.
Tales of horrific danger such as these are not isolated to China’s metal factories either. The Chinese Labour Bulletin brings up the death of young female factory worker in another province who died after inhaling the glue chemicals used in packaging and processing. Likewise, according to Robert Senser, thousands of Chinese workers are exposed to toxic chemicals and dangerous conditions in the toy factories that produce many exported children’s playthings. Even Central People’s Radio of China chimed in, reporting that thousands of workers lose fingers in the workplace, mostly crushed in heavy machinery.
In Yongkang, the government has worker safety laws on the books, but there is little enforcement of the laws. Keeping costs low seems to be the main objective of the factory owners: cheap labor (at often less than 50 cents an hour), no expenditure for safety and little or no compensation for injured workers means that toys, thermoses and cheap electronic items can be placed on the shelves of American stores with a high profit margin.
The question of what can be done can in some ways be a difficult one. With China now surpassing Japan as the leading Asian exporter to America, it is becoming more and more difficult to find any sort of items not manufactured in these brutal factories. However, sometimes examining the brand name and perhaps paying a little more for a company that does not employ labor in China will send an economic message to the Chinese factories and government enforcers. Likewise, discussing this problem and raising an outcry may indeed lead to some efforts of reform, as seen in situations with Nike and the Gap. As China’s industrial production increases, our ignorance of the horrible safety conditions in the factories should not continue.