Groups Off and Running with Health and Safety Project in Chinese Factories

Sports shoe giants Adidas-Salomon, Nike and Reebok and their Chinese contractors are participating in an effort to improve safety and health monitoring, programs and training in three footwear factories in Guangdong, China.

Garrett Brown, coordinator of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network who participated in the program, noted, "There is no one perfect model for improving factory conditions in China. However, each of these three factories, in its own way, has made changes that point the way towards improved worker participation and worker-management cooperation to reduce hazards in factories producing goods for global consumers." He added he hopes the project lays the groundwork for developing more extensive systems of worker participation and corporate responsibility in China.

The project included a formal needs assessment of health and safety in footwear factories, interviews and focus groups with workers; interviews with factory managers, brand managers and workers groups; curriculum development for a four-day training course; the development of worker health and safety committees in each factory and external support to these committees; and an evaluation process.

The project supported a range of innovative initiatives and experiments in the footwear factories, including:

  • Plant-wide health and safety committees with significant worker participation established in the three plants, qualitatively changing the character of previous management safety committees and improving communication between departments.
  • Identification and correction of a significant number of hazards in the plants that were previously unrecognized, or not previously corrected despite their identification by workers.
  • Training participants gained knowledge not only of occupational health topics, but also of how committees can organize themselves and carry out ongoing activities and deliberations with management.
  • An increased level of dialogue between plant management, international brands and workers groups, laying the basis for additional joint projects on the issue of workplace health and safety.

The project resulted in the creation of worker-management committees, including one committee supported by a democratically elected local union affiliated with the All China Federation of Trade Unions. Participants perceive these committees as a first step in building systems for worker participation in evaluating and improving health, safety and environmental conditions inside the factories. The committee members are learning how to effectively transfer information on worker concerns to factory managers, brand staff and NGOs outside the factories. The committees are working to develop new and safer mechanisms for workers to report problems, new processes for identifying and eliminating hazards and new systems of corporate accountability.

Participants in the project included Adidas-Salomon, Nike and Reebok; workers and supervisors from three contact factories: Kong Tai Shoes, Pegasus Shoes and Yue Yuen II; and four workers' groups: Asia Monitor Resource Center, Chinese Working Women Network, Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee and the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.

Representatives from the Labor Occupational Health Program at the University of California at Berkeley, the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology provided technical support. Initial funding for the project came from a grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

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