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Lax Health, Safety, and Environmental Regulations

  • Yongkang, in prosperous Zhejiang Providence just south of Shanghai, is the hardware capital of China. Its 7,000 metal-working factories—all privately owned—make hinges, hubcaps, pots and pans, power drills, security doors, tool boxes, thermoses, electric razors, headphones, plugs, fans and just about anything else with metallic innards.

    Yongkang, which means “eternal health” in Chinese, is also the dismemberment capital of China. At least once a day someone . . . is rushed to one of the dozen clinics that specialize in treating hand, arm and finger injuries, according to local government statistics. . . . The reality, all over China, is that workplace casualties had become endemic. Nationally, 140,000 people died in work-related accidents last year—up from about 109,000 in 2000, according to the State Administration of Work Safety. Hundreds of thousands more were injured.

    The New York Times13

The Chinese government imposes few health and safety or environmental regulations on its corporations or remaining state-run enterprises. What rules do exist are only weakly enforced, evaded, or simply ignored.

Not surprisingly, the lack of a basic regulatory and legal system is viewed as a great virtue by foreign corporations that want to evade much harsher regulatory and legal regimes in their own countries. Indeed, as China has flapped its laissez faire butterfly wings, foreign capital and foreign companies have flocked to its shores—often bringing their own lobbyists to ensure that the rules do not change. In this way, countries as near as Korea, Japan, and Taiwan and countries as far away as the United States have been able to “export” effectively their pollution and workplace risks to China.

Today’s Chinese production facilities are not unlike the Dickensian sweatshops of nineteenth-century industrializing England or the dangerous American factories at the turn of the century that were exposed by the “muckrakers.”

In China’s factories, if the blades or presses do not sever a limb or take a life, the dirt and dust in the lungs or chemicals that seep in through the skin provide a much slower death. According even to China’s own under-reported statistics, China is one of the most dangerous places to work in the world.

For those workers who do lose a limb or fall prey to a work-related disease, no functioning legal system exists to protect them. Upon being injured or maimed, they simply become the detritus of a ruthless manufacturing machine. Because the workers do not receive health care from the state and are unable to extract adequate compensation from their employers, the Chinese (and multinational) companies that grind up and spit out these workers enjoy a cost advantage over countries where workers are better protected.

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