A deadly fire in a Chinese poultry slaughterhouse in Dehui in northeastern Jilin province took the lives of at least 119 people on Monday morning. Saying that the fire was a “tragedy of immense proportions,” Geoff Crothall, communications director for Hong Kong-based advocacy group China Labor Bulletin, tells the Guardian that “certainly for factory fires I cannot think of anything that compares with this.”
The fire has, once again, highlighted China’s troubled record to create safe and humane conditions for workers and at a time when a Chinese company, Shuanghai International, has proposed to acquire a U.S. company, Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest producer of pork.
Locked Doors in Chinese Poultry Slaugterhouse
About 350 people worked in the Dehui slaughterhouse and meat processing plant, which was built in 2009 and was not an up-to-date facility. Workers interviewed by CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, said the fire may have started in a locker room between shifts. The lights went out as smoke filled the building and a “crush of workers” was severely hindered in getting out due in part to what Xinhua, China’s official news agency, calls the building’s “complicated interior structure” and narrow exits.
Actually, even if workers had been able to make their way to the exits, they would still have not been able to get out. Only one door in the whole building was not locked; workers’ families have said that the factory doors were “always” kept locked during working hours. The front gate of the plant was also locked.
Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Company, which owns the plant, produces about 67,000 tons of chicken a year for meat-hungry China. Chickens are killed at the site and then cut up to be sold. To maintain cold temperatures inside the plant, its cooling system contained ammonia among other substances and the walls were lined with flammable foam insulation.
China Has Fire Safety Laws, But Low Enforcement
A 1993 fire in a plastic toy factory in Shenzhen that killed 80 people — most young women – had been “one of the main reasons” that China drafted its first labor law in 1994, says Crothall. But while China has created a slew of workplace safety regulations about the use of toxic chemicals and the prevention of occupational illnesses, these laws are not routinely enforced by local officials or followed by those who run factories whose overriding concern is profits.
In fact, figures from China’s Public Security Bureau cited in the BBC say that, in 2011, there was a 6 percent increase in fires on construction sites and a 9 percent increase in fires in agricultural factories as compared to 2010.
Overall, China’s record for fire safety is “poor by international standards,” says Crothal; a fire in a 2000 nightclub in Luoyang in Henan province on Christmas resulted in the death of 309 people.
The country’s reputation for paying little heed to workers’ rights has also been a topic of concern in the past few years after reports of workplace accidents, workers committing suicide and inhumanely long shifts at Foxconn factories making iPhones and other Apple products.
Those reports have resulted in Foxconn seeking to improve working conditions in its plants and to increase wages. But with the “cost advantages” of Foxconn changing, Apple is shifting some of its supply chain to another, rival company, Taipei-based Pegatron. This smaller company has so far escaped public scrutiny for its labor practices including a 2011 explosion at a factory in which dozens of workers were injured.
Chinese Company’s Proposed Takeover of Smithfield Foods: What About Food Safety?
Shuanghai’s proposed $4.7 billion takeover of Smithfield would be the largest Chinese takeover of a U.S. company and must now only undergo scrutiny by the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS ) to assess any possible national security risks.
It is not at all certain what Chinese control of a major supplier of meat in the U.S. could mean regarding consumer health. Representative Rose DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, has already raised concerns about food safety in light of China’s very poor record on protecting its own food supply. Pointing out that Shuanghai has had to recall tainted pork in the past, DeLauro notes that she has “deep doubts about whether this merger best serves American consumers and urge federal regulators to put their concerns first.”
Demand for U.S. meat in China has risen in the wake of food scandals, including rat meat labeled as mutton and is one factor behind Shuanghai’s proposed acquisition of Smithfield. Given the apparent emphasis on the quantity of poultry processed at the Dehui slaughterhouse over the quality of workers’ conditions, let’s hope this attempted deal is an indication that Chinese companies are really getting serious about food safety.
Photo via oskarlin/Flickr