- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 8, 2010

Tens of thousands of Chinese workers are killed in workplace accidents each year because the communist nation relies on local authorities to enforce national safety guidelines, which companies and local governments routinely ignore for the sake of production.

“They’ve been very casual toward life,” said Richard Cooper, an international economics professor at Harvard University, noting that Chinese workers can always be replaced. “To [the businesses], life is cheap.”

For instance, 5,000 of China’s 5 million coal miners are killed on the job each year, a death rate of one in 1,000 on average. By comparison, an average of nine of the 83,000 miners in the U.S. die each year, a death rate of one in 10,000.

Chinese construction sites and factories also have high numbers of fatal accidents, such as the explosion in Nanjing last week that killed at least 13 workers.

As China prepares to overtake the United States as the world’s top manufacturer, the safety conditions of its 600 million-strong work force could give a short-term competitive edge over the U.S. and other developed economies.

“It’s a labor cost borne by the workers,” said Steven Lewis, a research fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

Mr. Lewis noted, though, that the competitive advantage is slight, given China’s low wages.

The exact number of annual work-related deaths in China is unknown, as even Beijing acknowledges that “it is much more cost-effective for coal mine owners to buy-off the families … than risk closure by reporting an accident,” leaving many deaths overlooked, according to a report by China Labor Bulletin, a group that promotes workers’ rights.

The problem does not lie with China’s safety regulations, analysts say. In fact, the communist nation has some strong workplace-safety laws, especially for a developing economy.

“Chinese government attaches great importance to the protection of legitimate rights of workers,” Yang Wenxu, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said in an e-mail. Beijing “has made great efforts, including formulating relevant rules and regulations, as well as taking concrete measures, to implement labor-protection laws.”

“There are some good laws on the books, but implementation has been spotty and haphazard at best,” said Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch in New York.

William Nee, a spokesman for China Labor Bulletin, said China does not have enough labor inspectors, leaving many aspects of worker safety largely unchecked.

“[The government] can’t be sure its policies are being implemented,” he said.

Obviously, it is cheaper for companies to ignore regulations and businesses to make decisions based on profit and productivity, Mr. Nee added.

Responsibility for enforcing labor laws falls to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, which has local bureaus across China. It is the equivalent of the U.S. Labor Department.

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