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But with the ministry’s local bureaus severely understaffed, such laws become nearly impossible to enforce, Mr. Kine said. Local governments usually have to fill in, but this opens the door for collusion, he said.

“Labor regulations are often seen as costly frills,” Mr. Kine said, adding that businesses and local governments have no incentive to enforce them.

The economy in China is decentralized, he explained, so each local government needs to attract investment to its area, usually by enforcing fewer regulations.

“What you have is a system that emphasizes production,” Mr. Kine said. “What this creates in most localities is big companies with strong relationships with local governments, which can then ride roughshod over safety regulations.”

Harvard’s Mr. Cooper said the local governments’ attitudes reflect an ancient Chinese adage: “The emperor is very powerful, but he is very far away.”

Last week in Nanjing, construction workers dismantling an abandoned plastics factory accidentally damaged a gas line and set off an explosion so massive that locals mistook it for an earthquake. The blast destroyed nearby buildings and left 13 dead and 300 injured.

Even Chinese officials said the accident resulted from lax safety standards during the operation and detained the responsible officials, according to Chinese media.

Compensation for injuries or death also remains minimal. According to a 2008 report by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a human rights watchdog, “central government directives encourage local governments to pressure bereaved families into signing compensation agreements,” which is cheaper than going to court.

Mr. Nee provided an example. China Labor Bulletin recently spoke with a worker who got a finger caught in some equipment and was sent to a hospital. It was cheaper for the company to compensate the unconscious worker for a lost hand than to surgically repair his finger.

When the worker woke up in the hospital, his hand was gone, Mr. Nee said.

China has no independent unions, so workers are “essentially helpless to have a voice,” Mr. Kine said.

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the country’s sole trade union, sides with the state and employers in most cases, he said.

Mr. Nee said workers can “vote with their feet” and move to better workplaces, but job opportunities are limited, especially in rural areas.

Analysts have noticed some improvement in recent years. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China noted the strength of labor laws put into effect in 2008, including some that used input from U.S. laws.

Mr. Kine also said there is “hope for change” with the new generation.

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