Menace at work

Published: Wednesday 31 July 1996

Workplaces are great. They give you money, satisfaction and a sense of belongingness. But some of them in China are giving their workers considerable nightmares. About 230,000 workers, mostly women, employed in 74 shoe factories in the city of Putian in Fijian province are exposed to benzene and toluene on a daily basis. The factories discharge almost 2,500 tonnes of benzene annually. The health hazards are too big to be ignored. At least 20 women are under treatment for leukaemia, one of them died of blood cancer and several pregnant women in the factories got ill and had to get an abortion. Most of these factories are joint ventures in which women employees have to work 12 hours a day without incentives or holidays. 'Profit-hungry overseas employers', who have no regard for Chinese laws, were flayed by labour minister Li Boyong in the wake of the incident. Taiwanese and Hong Kong employers were especially under fire for avoiding regulations. The condition in Chinese factories is not much better. Almost bankrupt state-owned companies lack the knowledge and the money to make their production processes safe for the workers. The slow introduction of new legislation has been the reason for the current serious condition and the growth of occupational diseases over the past 10 years. The danger of occupational diseases is more in the rural provinces of central and western parts of China with only 37 per cent of the rural enterprises up to dust and poison standards. A nationwide labour inspection which started in May and will continue till July is currently underway in China.

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