Pressure to produce is leading to maiming of Chinese workers

Posted: April 18, 2004

SHENZHEN, China — The Pingshan People's Hospital in the thriving industrial city of Shenzhen has a ward devoted to hand injuries. In one room, Yan Kaiguo, 23, cradles his bandaged right hand. On April 8, a machine at an electronic circuit board plant crushed part of his index finger.

Yan feels lucky that he lost only part of his finger, down to the first knuckle. He's confident he will get back his job, which pays about $96 a month.

"Every day, we get five or six cases like this, and sometimes over a dozen," said a hand surgeon at another large Shenzhen hospital, who asked that neither he nor his hospital be identified for fear of reprisal from city officials. "Most of the machines are old and semiautomatic. The workers have to put their hands into the machines."

In a grim replay of the industrial revolution in the United States and other countries, industrial machinery will crush or sever the arms, hands and fingers of about 40,000 Chinese workers this year, according to government-controlled news media. Some experts privately say the true number is higher.

A majority of the accidents occur in metalworking and electronics plants with heavy stamping equipment, shoe and handbag factories with leather-cutting equipment, and toy factories and industrial plastics plants with blazing hot machinery.

In Shenzhen's hospital wards, maimed factory workers nurse mangled hands and forearm stumps. They tell of factory managers who have removed machine safety guards that slowed output, and of working on decrepit, unsafe machinery. Workers toiling 100 hours a week grow dazed from fatigue, then lose their fingers to machines.

Local officials routinely overlook appalling safety conditions, worried that factory owners will relocate. They send mutilated migrant workers back to distant rural villages, shunting the burden of workplace injuries onto poorer inland provinces.

The workplace carnage is bitterly ironic in a communist country that was founded on principles of protecting downtrodden workers and peasants. Karl Marx, were he alive, would probably see an echo of the labor conditions in mid-19th-century England that gave rise to his communist principles.

Chinese Communist Party leaders are so eager to maintain high economic growth, and to create jobs for tens of millions of potentially restive Chinese, that they now preside over a savage form of capitalism. It is one in which maimed migrant workers can readily be discarded. Independent labor unions are banned. Workers are placed in front of machines for endless stretches.

But labor monitors say foreign companies that relentlessly demand lower prices, and U.S. consumers who gobble up low-cost goods, contribute to the problem.

Zhou Litai, a lawyer who represents hundreds of workers maimed or killed on the job, said foreign consumers should be aware that some "Made in China" products "are tainted with blood from cut-off fingers or hands."

Smaller factory owners have no leverage with global buyers and are always worried they will be replaced by other suppliers, so they try to make money rapidly, said Chen Ka-wai, the assistant director of the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, a watchdog group that monitors working conditions on the mainland.

Stories of dismembered workers are numbingly similar. Usually, migrant workers are recent arrivals to one of China's coastal industrial zones. They take any job offered, no matter the conditions. With no safety training, the workers are assigned to an unfamiliar machine.

Wang Xuebing, a 19-year-old from Hubei province in central China, went to Shenzhen and got a job last July in a metalworking plant. A month later, his foreman escorted a work crew to a different factory owned by a friend and "asked me and two coworkers to operate a metal mold machine," Wang said.

The machine made casings for air conditioners, using tons of pressure to mold sheeting. Wang said the machine went on the fritz but was rigged to work again.

"I placed a metal sheet in the machine, it pressed down. My hand was severed. I lost consciousness," Wang recalled.

Zhu Qiang came to the Pearl River Delta region from inland Sichuan province in early 2002. On March 2 of that year, he got a job making industrial plastic and shopping bags. Two weeks later, while working a 16-hour shift, he lost his right hand. "We were extremely tired. We were nodding our heads, almost asleep," Zhu said. "My hand got tangled with the plastic and got burned."

For the loss of his right hand, 22-year-old Zhu was given about $4,800. China's state-owned media are mentioning more frequently the staggering number of workplace injuries, especially in the region that includes Shenzhen, near Hong Kong.

"There are at least 30,000 cases of finger losses each year in the Pearl River Delta factories, and the total number of fingers being cut off by machines is over 40,000," the China Youth Daily, a state-owned national newspaper, said in a short report on March 13.

Chinese media call Yongkang in coastal Zhejiang province the "finger-cutting city." Yongkang's 7,000 small factories make tools, and about 1,000 workers in those factories lose fingers or hands each year, the Metropolis Express newspaper reported on Feb. 18.

"The majority of them will be immediately fired by the owners," said the Web site run by the Communist Party's national newspaper, People's Daily. "The compensation for each cut-off finger is 500 yuan," or about $60, roughly a month's salary.

For a young person, losing a hand spells doom. With as many as 20 million healthy people clamoring for jobs each year, factory owners never hire disabled people. Dismembered workers are condemned to destitution - and often loneliness.

Industrial accidents also are disasters for rural parents, most of whom have only one or two children because of China's strict birth restriction policy and rely on their children for support in old age.

Some workers would prefer to die, because their parents would get a larger onetime compensation, said Luo Yun, professor of workplace safety at Beijing's University of Geology.

"There's a popular saying now: 'We can afford to die, but we can't afford to be injured,' " Luo said.

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