China: Out with the Old and In with theOld?

Nov. 21, 2003
China's Ministry of Health insists that new regulations will reduce that country's staggering number of workplace illnesses and injuries. But the painful truth about occupational safety and health, and even worker dignity, may lie in the "real" workplace rules and regulations administered by employers in China.

In an article written for a special edition of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, Zhi Su, M.D., MPH, examines the implementation of occupational safety and health regulations in China. Zhi, the deputy general director for the Department of Health Legislation and Inspection for China's Ministry of Health, noted that China's population had reached nearly 1.3 billion; 77 percent of whom are employed. In 2001, the Ministry of Health received reports of 13,218 cases of occupational disease, and from January to November 2002, recorded a national total of nearly 1 million incidents involving injuries/deaths resulting in almost 125,000 fatalities.

Says Zhi, "China's occupational safety and health structure is facing serious challenges: lack of work safety awareness, backward infrastructure and loopholes in management and strict supervision have resulted in a continuing cycle of accidents and a serious prevalence of occupational diseases, which have caused great losses in terms of both lives and assets."

According to Zhi, workplaces should meet these basic occupational health requirements:

  • Control of the intensity or concentration of an occupational hazardous substance in compliance with the national occupational health standards.
  • Institution of appropriate occupational disease-prevention facilities.
  • Rational production layout in compliance with the principle of separating harmful from harmless operations.
  • Deployment of appropriate sanitation facilities such as dressing rooms, bathhouses and rest rooms for pregnant workers.
  • Ensuring that equipment, tools and appliances comply with requirements for protecting the well-being of workers.
  • Other requirements established by laws, regulations and administrative rules published by the health authority under the State Council.

China has also laws that protect workers' rights, such as:

  • The opportunity to receive occupational health education and training.
  • Access to occupational health services.
  • The right-to-know of the health effects of hazards in the workplace and how to protect themselves from work-related harm.
  • The opportunity to request and claim improvement of working conditions and personal protective equipment.
  • The right to criticize and accuse perpetrators of malpractices that violate safety and health regulations.
  • The right to reject illegal orders and commands to undertake operations without appropriate safeguard measures.
  • The right to participate in the democratic management of the employer's occupational safety and health program, and make comments and suggestions with regard to the occupational disease and injury prevention practices of the employer.

It all sounds good on paper, but what really goes on inside many Chinese factories? Stephen Frost, Ph.D., of the Southeast Asia Research Centre at City University of Hong Kong, asks in another article in the journal, "What set of workplace rules and regulations determine workplace practices in China? Is it the 13 chapters and 107 articles of the Labor Law of the People's Republic of China? Or is the codes of conduct designed, implemented and monitored by transnational corporations?"

While both are important, he says, a third set of rules takes precedence: the rules devised, implemented and enforced by the management of the factories.

At the Elegant Top Shoes factory in Dongguan, workers are told: If a worker is injured either through his own fault or by mistake, no medical leave is permitted. In the section of rules pertaining to safety, employees are told, "No chatting is allowed during work hours, no matter whether workers are engaged in single-machine production or line work."

Rules tell employees how to line up to enter the premises to start work, how to line up in the cafeteria, how to pick up their food and how to spend their downtime in the dormitory (no fighting, no gambling, no chess or poker, no smoking, no unauthorized lights, etc.).

If Barbie worked at Mattel's Number Two Toy Factory in Chang'an, she'd quickly learn that management reserves the right to fire her for what is termed "a physical problem," (which includes work-related injuries and illnesses) and keep her pay. In addition, she'd have to pay for electricity and water used in the dormitory; buy a factory ID card; pay for the cost of the rulebook; make a deposit on the equipment provided by management that is used to perform her job tasks; and contribute to a medical fund, even though company-paid medical care can be denied her if it is found that she was negligent or the injury or illness was the result of a "mistake."

"Unlike national laws and codes of conduct, factory rules are pervasive and transgressions result in immediate penalties, some of which are severe. These are the real rules by which Chinese workers live their lives," says Frost.

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