A finger here, an arm there — China takes workplace mutilations in stride

If you visit Asian Labour News regularly (and you should), you’re well familiar with the myriad safety hazards that are par for the course in the Chinese workplace. Explosions, cave-ins, toxic gas emissions — they hardly even raise an eyebrow, they are such everyday stories.

Still, a recent article on maimed factory works in Shenzhen caught my eye, if only for the fact that the problem is so severe and affects so many Chinese workers, and the government totally fails to enforce the laws in place to prevent such atrocitites. It’s one of those articles where every line is quotable, so I’m just going to post the whole thing, with emphasis added.

SAVAGE FORM OF CAPITALISM: Chinese factory workers risk limbs to hold jobs


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. April 8, a machine at an electronic circuit-board plant crushed part of his index finger.

Yan feels lucky he lost only part of his finger, down to the first knuckle. He’s confident he’ll 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 some 40,000 Chinese workers this year, government-controlled news media report. Some experts privately say the true number is higher.

A majority of the accidents occurs in metalworking and electronics plants with heavy stamping equipment, shoe and handbag factories with leather-cutting equipment, 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’ve 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 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’s 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.”

Former U.S. Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., long an advocate of worker and union rights, called the Chinese record on worker safety horrendous.

“Worker safety is a very important issue in the free trade debates, because, if you go to places like China, worker safety is not considered a priority, and as a result there are far too many worker deaths.

“If we continue to move in the direction of these same new trade regimes, you’re going to see more and more workers injured and losing their lives, and that’s one of the issues that’s in the forefront in the discussions.”

Smaller factory owners have no leverage with global buyers and are always worried they’ll 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, the migrant worker is a recent arrival to one of China’s coastal industrial zones. He or she takes any job offered, no matter the conditions. With no safety training, the worker is assigned to an unfamiliar machine.

Wang Xuebing, a 19-year-old from Hubei province in central China, came to Shenzhen and got a job in 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.

“When 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. 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. I was rushed to the hospital. There was no way to save my hand.”

For the loss of his right hand, 22-year-old Zhu was given about $4,800. China’s state-owned media mention 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 March 13.

Chinese media call Yongkang in coastal Zhejiang province the “finger-cutting city.” Yongkang’s 7,000 small factories make tools, and some 1,000 workers in those factories lose fingers or hands each year, the Metropolis Express newspaper said 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.

“With no money, it’s hard to find a girlfriend,” said Sun Hongyuan, 28, a worker who lost his right hand several years ago.

In Washington last month, the AFL-CIO petitioned the Bush administration to demand that it pressure China to increase wages and improve working conditions. Acting under a 1974 trade law, the labor group said Chinese workers suffer “staggering rates of injuries, illness and death” because the nation unfairly scrimps on workplace safety and denies a series of worker rights. The administration has until early May to rule on the request.

In China, laws abound, but enforcement is often lacking.

“China has a series of laws protecting workers’ rights and interests. They are probably better than in some Western countries. But they don’t apply it, particularly at the local level,” said Zhou, the labor lawyer.

Maybe there are all these mutiliations because China is so big, government inspectors can’t oversee everything. But hey, they have the time, money and resources to watch over what people are doing on the Internet, and to enroll everyone in the hukou system and enforce it with a vengeance. They have time to enforce their repression of HBVers. They have time to churn out maudlin self-congratulatory drivel in their media, telling you all what a great job they are doing taking care of you.

Does it say something about their priorities?

The Discussion: 15 Comments

Having read so much about what’s going on in my country, I should have learned to be indifferent to the stories in this article. But I simply cannot. I don’t know how to describe my feelings: shocked, sad, angry, confused, hopeless? Maybe all of them. But I would never share my feelings with my elite friends because I know their reactions. They would point out that I am the most sentimental creature on the planet, and that I lack the ability to look at things from a historical perspective. They would also explain to me, quoting the history of industry revolution., that all these tragedies are inevitable and the governemnt is doing the right thing to put economy growth to the highest priority. Perfect logic. But I would have more reasons to worry if they are right. If history has to repeat itself in this way, we need to go through at least another two world wars before China can afford to give her citizens humane labor conditions. They would then explain to me that this is just the law of the nature: only the strongest can survive. I’m not going to buy this argument becuase I cannot imagine how our corruptive officials would be able to survive in a ‘natural’ environment. Sometimes I really doubt our society is more ‘humane’ than the animal kingdom. There, at least preys and predators are created equal, and the preys are never told to sacrifice themselves for some so called cause only understood by the predators.

April 18, 2004 @ 11:28 pm | Comment

Hui, I appreciate your honesty. The thing your friends must remember is that this isn’t the 19th century. The safeguards are there, as the article says, and the laws are in place to protect China’s factory workers. But due to greed and carelessness, they are ignored. If these laws were enforced, the problem would be far less awful.

April 19, 2004 @ 12:01 am | Comment

when i read about the HBvers at asian labour news, a HBver wrote a comment in chinese. he said he went so many hospitals and no doctors said he needed any treatment. when he repeatedly asking the doctors why then can’t he find a job.. most of them ignored him.. one was blunt enough to say: “china has too many people. sometimes we need natural selection.”

April 19, 2004 @ 10:10 am | Comment

China: Savage form of capitalism: Chinese factory workers risk limbs to hold jobs

I want to reference the Peking Duck here, not just because I found the article via Richard’s site, but because of the comment from a Chinese reader about it (see here). The story resonated with me because my first trip…

April 19, 2004 @ 10:14 am | Comment

Hi Richard –

I’m also a fan of the Asian Labour News site and of Stephen Frost, who maintains it. I interviewed him by phone recently for a piece I wrote on the recent trade fracas between the US and China (soon to appear in the China Economic Review) and he had some things to say which you might find interesting. I couldn’t include everything that he said, of course, and there were some very important points he made about how Chinese occupational health and safety inspectors he talks to are sincere about wanting to do their jobs but don’t have the muscle or resources: when you consider there are literally tens of thousands of factories in Dongguan alone, and that the naked economics of running a factory dictate that if hew to OHS codes you’re not going to be as competitive as the other guy who doesn’t or can’t pay a wage as high and therefore can’t stop high turnover, there’s a lot working against you — including the workers you’re trying to protect, who (until they lose that finger) are much more keen on the higher paycheck and are willing to take the risk.

Here’s what Stephen Frost said about the AFL-CIO petition filed under Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act, with some context. If you’d like, I can send you the whole story.

The petition, filed under amendments to Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act, specifies that a trading partner’s persistent denial of internationally recognized workers’ rights – freedom of association, right to collective bargaining, standard minimum wage, hours of work and occupational safety and health – constitutes an unreasonable trade practice. The document, authored by Columbia law professor Mark Barenberg, is a scathing indictment of labor practices in China, and calls for the US to impose tariffs of 10%-77% on Chinese goods.

“We’re taking this action because the Chinese government’s persistent pattern of violating international standards of workers’ rights is inflicting great hardship on working families in both our countries,” said AFL-CIO president John Sweeney as the petition was presented to the USTR.

Gong’s assessment of the powerful union’s petition is shared by American counterparts: “I honestly don’t think it was intended as a way to resolve a trade dispute,” said Patrick Norton. “It’s a platform for the trade unions to publicize their grievances. From a legal perspective, it’s highly problematic.”

Barenberg, however, denies that the purpose is protectionist: “[U]nlike other unfair trade practices enumerated in section 301, the workers’ rights provisions are aimed at safeguarding fundamental human rights. That aim cannot be dismissed as ‘protectionist…’ The goal is to use the enormous economic leverage of the United States to induce positive change in China – to achieve respect for the basic rights of China’s factory workers.”

Stephen Frost, a research fellow at the City University of Hong Kong’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies who co-authored reports on occupational health and safety cited six times in the AFL-CIO petition, doesn’t see it that way. “When I read myself cited I get kind of a sinking feeling of ‘yeah, but what I meant was…’ It’s frustrating to present reports on Chinese working conditions intended to help Chinese workers only to have them used in China bashing that’s ultimately detrimental to Chinese workers,” said Frost, who criticizes the report for failing to make adequate mentions of changes to labor conditions in recent years, for overstating the dearth of legal advocacy and rights available to workers, and most importantly for ignoring the perspective of Chinese workers themselves.

“There’s no mention in the report of the impact of (proposed tariffs) on Chinese labor,” said Frost. “Not a single sentence that flags what the impact would be on China. It makes vague assertions that the effect would be better wages for Chinese workers, and denies that it’s about protectionism. Additionally, the report appears in a vacuum: Would the Chinese retaliate? There’s no scenario development, which is a standard procedure in something like this.”

Frost points out that while workers routinely work hours well in excess of overtime limits specified in Chinese labor law, factories that do abide by overtime restrictions find themselves unable to attract and keep workers. “A woman from a rural township can come to a factory to work, and even if she’s underpaid at only 400-500 yuan per month in Shenzhen she’ll earn in two months what her entire family makes per annum. These people are victimized, from the perspective of the AFL-CIO. But they don’t think of themselves as victims. No one talks about what’s going on in the minds of the workers – the sense of excitement and adventure. You’re an 18 year old girl and suddenly you get to travel across China to a boom town like Shenzhen, or more recently Dongguan, and there’s a real buzz about a place.”

April 20, 2004 @ 7:24 am | Comment

You should also read up on the dismantling of the hukou system. Several of the people I talked to for this piece — all of them Americans quite knowledgeable about trade and labor in China — zeroed in on out-of-date information about the hukou system in their critiques of the AFL-CIO petition.

April 20, 2004 @ 7:29 am | Comment

Kaiser, I’ve read recently that the hukou restrictions have been softened. But I also know it’s still causing serious problems for some people.

April 20, 2004 @ 9:40 am | Comment

Stephen and I have discussed the petition, which I see as mainly political, and yesterday I read the post you allude to. That doesn’t alter my opinion that China does need to be “bashed” when it comes to the safety of its factory workers. I’m glad so many of the migrant workers are finding their new lives in the Shenzhen factories to be peachy. That doesn’t alter the fact that many of them are needlessly being maimed and discarded, their lives ruined.

Safety regulations everywhere slow down productivity, but they save workers’ lives. Most countries that aspire to play a major role on the stage of international trade accept this trade-off — they pay the price to preserve their workers’ limbs. I can’t accept brushing this aside by saying that lots of Chinese benefit from the factories. Countries all over the world manage to do both — saving their workers’ limbs and turn a profit. Only in China does it seem that we are willing to sacrifice the former because of the benefits of the latter.

I restate my case that if the government has the resources to hire 40,000 Internet police, it can surely hire 40,000 more factory inspectors. I promise, if this issue were seen by the CCP as somehow threatening “social stability,” they’d come up with the resources in not time flat.

April 20, 2004 @ 9:46 am | Comment

Obviously it would be great if the Chinese government were really able to do that. Workplace safety is something we can all get behind. But I still think that there’s this “China-as-monolith” thinking that explains your readiness to lay the blame so squarely on ‘the CCP.’ I wish to point out that it’s not simply a matter of hiring more inspectors. There’s complicity in sub-par safety conditions not only involving factory owners/managers but workers as well. Workers are not, contrary to the reporting in the article you excerpt, chained to machines with armed guards standing over them, fed only gruel and losing digits every couple of weeks. Stephen Frost told me that many of the factories he’s visited turn over their entire workforce (not, I assure you, management’s preference) every year! There’s considerable freedom of movement in the job market, as you would expect given the huge number of un- and semi-skilled factory jobs available, and the primary consideration of these workers is the total sum of the monthly paycheck — irresepective of overtime they work, and unfortunately, irresepective of workplace safety.

That said, I think it’s also important to note that as bad as the situation remains, occupational health and safety has improved measurably over the last decade. I don’t have the numbers in front of me; perhaps Dr. Frost could supply them, but I read recently (ILO?) that numbers for work-related accidents per worker are way down over ten years ago, and Stephen Frost told me during the course of our interview that he believes access to the legal system is much improved on years past.

The sweatshop story as told in the article you cite is overly-simplistic, lacking in nuance, and intended to elicit a purely emotional response. I think it needs to be told more subtly, exploring in more depth the root causes of the existing evils and giving fair play to the changes. Stories like this have helped to form this totally inaccurate impression of labor conditions in the minds of most people outside of China. The truth is that there are good, clean, safe and well-run factories and there are nasty awful hell-holes with a whole range in between.

April 20, 2004 @ 6:38 pm | Comment

Maybe things are getting better, and if I see articles that document this I’ll cite them. I did the same with AIDS — most of my posts this year on the subject have been about the advances China has made. Believe it or not, I do try to be fair. There are some topics –environmental carelessness, factory accidents, media/Internet censorship and more recently the HBV story — where if there is any good news I haven’t heard it yet. I have the highest respect for both you and Stephen, though we obviously see things differently. As long as people from the countryside are being maimed and killed in the factories and sent home packing, all because safety precautions were ignored in the name of expediency, then I think it’s legitimate for me to post about it. I’ve said before I don’t believe the CCP is monolithically evil. What I have to conclude here is that its priorities are screwed up, and the results are devastating. As you and Stephen point out, many of the migrant workers are delighted they’ve found their factory jobs and say how happy they are. I wonder if those who’ve had their hands chopped off gush so poetic. And it’s not a small number. Read Stephen’s blog daily, and it can seem almost a litany of death and destruction in the Chinese workplace.

During the Industrial Revolution we saw the same scenario. It wasn’t gentle prodding or focusing on the positive that forced change. It was aggressive muckracking that forced the public to know what was happening, embarrassing the factory owners and creating the pressure for legislating safe working conditions. Embarrassment, not appeasement, is what forced China to come clean about SARS and deal with it. That seems to me the most effective tactic, not praising them because they’ve succeeded in making things a bit less atrocious.

April 20, 2004 @ 7:22 pm | Comment

Thanks for that Kaiser (and thanks to Stephen). Those comments are extremely interesting.

I’ve learned so much about this subject since I began reading Asian Labour News and this site everyday.

We’re so lucky to have people like Stephen Frost and yourselves out there doing such good work.

Please continue.

April 21, 2004 @ 1:42 am | Comment

Kaiser, I agree that many migration workers don’t consider themselves as victims, but I think that’s exactly the most tragic part of the story. Brutal as it is, life in the factories seem far more attractive than that in theri hometowns. I don’t know if you’re from China or how long you have lived in China, and if you have ever had chance to personally know any migration worker. I was born and raised in China, but never had a chance to get to know one of them. But two of my roommates in university come from Guangdong, one from Dongguan and the other from Jiangmen. Their parents are government officials and factory owners. I lived with them for four years, and we were getting along quite well. Sometimes they talked about migration workers in their hometown, such as the bloody scene in Guangzhou railway station during 1997 spring festival when lots of (no one knows the exact number) migration workers died. I was extremely horrified by their talks, not only by what happened to those workers, but by how they framed their stories. They simply told those horrible things as jokes, without a thread of sympathy. (but their stories are definitely true and they saw it happen with their own eyes) They just believe, deep in their heart, those migration workers are in a differnt category of human beings, that are inherently inferior and expendable. Trust me, it’s really chilly to hear somebody you persoanlly know so well express such opinions. So the problem is not how to handle the trade-off between worker welfare and productivity, it’s simply if the welfare of migration workers is a problem worth considering. While billions of forein investment rushes to China to take advantage of the cheap labor of the country , the migration workers benefit little from the economic miracle made possible by their existence. Few in the government bother to worry about them except when they (occationally) showed they may pose a threat to the “stability” of the society. Are they victms of our system? I think they definitely are. The fact that many of them are thrilled about gettig a job in the city has all to do with the widening wealth gap between rich and poor regions in China, and little to do with the working conditions improvement in the factories.

By the way, while some regions are relaxing the Hukou system, others are tightening their restrictions. Shanghai has new regulations to ensure only “highly qualified” college graduates from other regions can get a legitimate job in the city. Of course, this has little to do with millions of migration workers in Shanghai. They are considered of no value to this vibrant city literally built by them.

April 21, 2004 @ 2:58 am | Comment

I agree with Hui/Richard. Everyone attackcs United States on its bad acts, so why should we be silent to crimes of the government in China? Why should we do China special favors and say nothing?? Speak out, it is the only way.

April 21, 2004 @ 3:07 pm | Comment


April 23, 2004 @ 11:56 am | Comment

Hi there,

I’m doing some informal research on the AFL-CIO proposal and I’d like to get the citation for the article posted by Kaiser at April 20, 2004 07:24 AM that includes Dr. Frost’s insight on labour rights in the PRC. Also if you have any citations discussing the the problems associated with the implementation of similar proposals utilizing section 301, I would greatly appreciate it.

September 29, 2005 @ 9:49 am | Comment

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