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newsletter volume 20, number 2
april 2006

asian workers organising page 3

china health and safety: still a big worry

By now most readers will be aware of the role of big brands in developing countries such as China sub-contracting to small factories, which, because of price-cutting pressures, push their workers into long hours of work, forced overtime,
inadequate ventilation and poor training leading to a horrendous accident and injury rate.
Thankfully, many of China’s newspapers and some active Asia region NGOs have brought some of the most dramatic scandals to light, most notably mining disasters. This has
led to some positive action by the Chinese government.

In 2002 a couple of landmark laws on health and safety were passed. These laws laid out the right of workers to refuse to participate in unsafe production. Article 19 of the Work Safety Law sets out that firms with more than 300 workers
must set up work safety management structures.
A miner in China is 40 times more likely to die underground than an Australian miner so it was heartening to see Xinhua newsagency report on 14 March 2006 that the Chinese government had shut down more than 70 per cent of 5,000 collieries that had been declared unsafe.
Big State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) can
relatively easily put full time health and
safety officers in place and pay for training
in proper handling of chemicals or dangerous
dust. SOEs, however, are no longer the leaders of industry. The three private types of management: Privately Invested Enterprise (PIE), Foreign or Jointly Owned Enterprises (FIE) and Town or Village Enterprises (TVE) now make up two thirds of the non-agricultural economy. Most of them are small scale, with little awareness of or interest in preventing workplace injury to their
workers. Often local government officials are part owners of the business. This means that even the best of the central government’s laws are often simply ignored. A report publicised by China Labor Watch showed that untrained workers who have been forced to work 12 hour days are much more likely to fall victim to exhaustion (which
is then labelled ‘carelessness’), leading to injuries to their hands, eyes or lungs. In the toy making industry, during peak periods, such 12-hour days - combined with 6 day weeks -
can last for a month or two. This is utterly illegal, but is not policed properly.

Anita Chan argues in China’s Workers Under Assault that management from Hong Kong, Taiwan or Korea is especially likely to be involved in the worst cases of occupational injury
and abuse. This is why it was great to see Feng Xingzhong, a victim of silicosis, win his three year legal battle - to the tune of 460,000 yuan. His employer Gaoya Jewellery tried to dodge paying him by changing its operations under a new
name, Gaoyi Gems. Gaoya, or Gaoyi, was owned by Ko Ngar Gems, a Hong Kong company. Mobilisations by NGOs outside of China helped Feng in his battle. China Labour
Bulletin, while proud of this victory, warns that many hundreds more silicosis victims have not succeeded in receiving proper compensation.

Millions of poor, under-educated villagers have flooded to the coastal cities of China where the high growth economy is happening. Their youth, inexperience and lack of education make it more likely for them to fall victim to accidents and less likely to be aware of their legal entitlements. The
All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has spoken about organising these internal migrant workers, but has had only limited success. The small scale of many of the private enterprises, plus the fact that the migrant workers
don’t speak the local dialect, makes it easy for unscrupulous employers to demand ‘down-payments’ for the workers to be granted work, then keep their residence papers, then charge them fines and penalties - such as deducting half an hour’s wages for arriving five minutes late for work.

Once they are injured, few are covered by
health insurance. The Economic Information
Daily, on 17 February 2006, estimated that more than 85 per cent of people living in cities and towns do not have basic medical insurance. When a worker is taken to hospital, the factory usually pays the bills (but then fights not to pay further compensation). This means the hospitals draw their income from those factories, so some
bargaining takes place by factory management
to get hospitals to keep their fees as low as possible. This leads to inadequate treatment for the worker.

Direct worker participation in monitoring health and safety would lead to a better situation. In the 1980s, especially in the big SOEs, union organisation in the big factories, including twice
yearly meetings of the Staff and Worker Congresses, gave workers some direct input into monitoring their firms’ safety. In recent years, however, the numbers of representatives and
the amount of resources committed to occupational health and safety in such SOEs has dwindled. Meei-Shia Chen in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental
Health (December 2003) cites one worker representative as saying “If the boat is shaking, then people on the boat will become sea sick”. Injured workers are being told not to expect to be cared for if their firm isn’t making ‘enough’
money. ACFTU representatives often do not challenge this new ideology because they believe they are accountable to management and the government rather than to workers.

In the private sector, where not only small firms, but also factories with 30,000 to 70,000 workers (especially in Dongguan and Shenzhen, the export processing zone of China) can exist, the union penetration is poor. Such private industry sections of the economy are spawning a movement for independent trade unions, which is
being resisted by the central government.
Strategies that will bring more power to curb the collusion and corruption of local government
and businesses, that bring China’s workers into contact with workers throughout the world who are also fighting to improve health and safety, and that enable greater direct control of the production process will be most likely to have a positive outcome.

Mark Matcott
Australian Education Union
AAWL North Asia Project Coordinator

australia: tilt-up panel collapse kills worker

Fifty-eight year old Christos Binas was killed on
March 8 at a commercial site in Pakenham, Melbourne, when a 14-tonne tilt panel, which had
already been erected, toppled and crushed him.
Two other workers with Chirstos managed to
scramble to safety.

The incident occurred at 10:50am on the large
factory complex. The builder LJA Constructions
had contracted the panel casting to R&M Mascitti, which in turn had subcontracted the erection of the panels to a crane and rigging company. Christos had worked for Mascitti for eight years and was intending to retire in November, according to reports. He is survived by his wife, two daughters, a son and four grandchildren. He was known as a good bloke and hard worker, who will be sadly missed by his mates. WorkSafte Victoria is investigating the cause of the incident. In its report (06:003), WorkSafe offers the following preliminary findings: “The structural and shop drawings had recommendations for two dowel pins and weld connections from the panel base to the edge of the ground slab. However, the collapsed panel had neither the dowel pins nor the weld connections in place at the time of the collapse.
Accordingly, the panel had no lateral restraint at
the base. The internal walls appeared to have
provision for base lateral restraint by seating the
panels into recesses of appropriate depth.”

WorkSafe warns that: “Wall panels with no lateral
restraint at the base are unsafe, as they can be
destablised by lateral forces resulting from wind,
impact etc. Adequate planning, giving consideration to the erection sequence, should ensure that panels are not stored in close proximity to erected panels and their brace supports. “Incidents similar to this can be avoided if the advice given in the Victorian Industry Standard for Precast and Tilt-up Concrete for Buildings if fully implemented.”

More information:
www.worksafe.vic.gov.au/construction

12 month record broken
Just before Christos’s tragic death, Victorian workers had shown we could have an industry without fatalities and serious injuries. More than 12 months has passed without a fatality on a Victorian construction site and the number of serious injuries had gone down. The safety unit has no doubt that this is due to the diligence of safety reps and organisers keeping safety at the forefront of everyone’s minds.“The combination of safety reps, training and diligence out in the field, on the jobs, is what has given us over 12 months without a fatality. But Christos’s tragic death shows we have to constantly maintain that effort.”
Unions have achieved in bringing better safety to
the construction industry and will continue to do
so.

Pat Preston
Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union
Manager, Occupational Health and Safety Unit

help

newsletters

Asian Workers Organising, April 06

Asian Workers Organising, February 06

APWSL Newsletter December 05

 

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