China's Workers Risk Limbs in Export Drive
By JOSEPH KAHN
YONGKANG, China — In his 17 days of molding tool boxes, Wang Chenghua learned to work like a metronome. He slipped strips of metal under a mechanical hammer with his right hand, then swept molded parts into a pile with his left. He did this once a second for a 10-hour shift, minus a half-hour lunch.
Just before lunch on the 18th day, he lost the beat. The hammer, backed by 4,000 pounds of pressure, ripped through the middle and ring fingers of his right hand, reducing them to pulp.
Mr. Wang, 26, now spends his days in the orthopedic ward of the Yongkang First People's Hospital, where wall posters advertise reattachment surgery for molders, millers, pressers and lathe operators who, unlike Mr. Wang, salvaged their digits and limbs.
"The work is so boring it is almost impossible to keep your mind on it," Mr. Wang recalled one recent afternoon while resting on a dirty cot in his crowded hospital room. "But if you let your mind wander for just a second, it's over."
Yongkang, in prosperous Zhejiang Province 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.
People all over the world use Yongkang-made parts. They are the nuts and bolts of hundreds of brand name products, like Bosch, Black & Decker, and Hitachi.
Yongkang, which means "eternal health" in Chinese, is also the dismemberment capital of China. At least once a day someone like Mr. Wang is rushed to one of the dozen clinics that specialize in treating hand, arm and finger injuries, according to local government statistics.
Unofficial estimates run as high as 2,500 such accidents here each year. Lawyers, journalists and doctors say hundreds or thousands of injured workers are left out of the official count either because the boss does not have insurance, or because workers were not hired legally, or because city officials are under pressure to show that they have safety under control.
The reality, all over China, is that workplace casualties have 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.
Safety officials call this alarming. But the steps the government has taken to address the issue — occasional propaganda campaigns and isolated crackdowns on irresponsible bosses — have done little to solve fundamental problems in China's emerging capitalist culture, where high rates of injury and death are tolerated as the price of economic progress.
In what has become the world's factory for labor-intensive products over the last decade of surging economic growth, an endless supply of transient workers line up for jobs offering about 50 cents an hour, about one-twentieth of the average American manufacturing wage.
Millions of eager Chinese entrepreneurs help fill the shelves of Wal-Mart and Target with sneakers and DVD players that get better and cheaper year after year.
Last year China surpassed Japan as Asia's biggest exporter to the United States, and it replaced the United States as the largest exporter to Japan.
But safety has suffered in this relentless drive, not least in Yongkang. Some factories resemble operations at the dawn of the industrial age, where migrant laborers use rudimentary machines that can sever the limbs of those who succumb to momentary distractions. Workers usually have only elementary school educations and get no training. They do not have the right to organize unions or, in some cases, even discuss workplace hazards.
Xu Xing Metals seems typical. Its 50 workers press metal into strips for thermal cups, working in a dimly lit shed where bars cover broken windows. The floor rumbles with the pulse of six metal presses. Workers have to shout over the roar to be heard.
Li Jiahao, a 38-year-old master craftsman at Xu Xing, said he had long worried about safety, especially since his boss discovered he could save money by using wastewater instead of fresh water for the machines' cooling systems. Wastewater clogged the machines' pipes, requiring constant cleaning, Mr. Li said.
"I told him somebody was going to get his arm caught unclogging the filter," Mr. Li said. "He said I had no right to speak."
Mr. Li was scooping grime out of a cooling pipe one day in mid-March when the machine's rollers clipped his shirt, dragging his arm into the metal press, elbow first. When co-workers wrenched him free, he could see his hand popping out of his shirt but felt nothing — the arm was hanging by a few tendons. It had to be amputated.
Recuperating at the First People's Hospital, where he is teaching himself to write and use chopsticks left-handed, Mr. Li said his boss at Xu Xing, Hu Xu, had paid for his medical care but refused to discuss compensation. "The boss claims this was operator error, not a safety problem," Mr. Li said.
Mr. Hu declined to discuss the case in a telephone interview. Pressed to explain what happened to Mr. Li, he said, "Why don't you ask him?" and hung up.
The riskiest jobs in Yongkang, as in war, go to green recruits, fresh from the farm. Young migrants are hired at the train station to run metal-stampers and molders, high-pressure hammers driven by flywheels. Many new workers do not last a month.
Ling Banghua, 23, a native of rural Jiangxi Province, arrived in Yongkang in early March. He was spending his fourth day making tops for bicycle pumps when a mold the size of a hockey puck took three fingers off his left hand. He has pleaded with his boss to give him enough money for a bus ticket home.
"No one needs a one-handed migrant worker," he says.
Mr. Wang, the tool-box maker, never got paid in his 18 days at Hua Xin Electronics and ran up a bill at the company canteen. Though the law mandates compensation for injured workers, Mr. Wang, a native of Guizhou Province, one of the poorest in China, did not know he had to sign a contract to be legally employed. The young man, who speaks heavily accented Mandarin, cannot afford a lawyer.
Mr. Wang's unwashed hair has melded into a pompadour and his bandaged hand is stained with dirt and yellow disinfectant. Sitting on his hospital bed as fellow patients gathered around, he described his discussions with his boss, Shi Yanxin. The boss, Mr. Wang said, told him that his finger injury did not merit any hardship pay beyond covering medical fees.
"I joked with him that I wish I lost more fingers — maybe he'd give me compensation," Mr. Wang said. "I just hope he gives me enough to get home."
Mr. Shi denied that he had decided not to pay compensation.
"It depends on how well he recovers," he said in an interview. But he said the accident was Mr. Wang's fault.
"With these guys, you tell them to pay attention and they don't listen," Mr. Shi said. "They have no culture or education. They are told many times to be safe and they just don't get it."
Reducing injuries may require more than increased diligence by workers, however. It is also a legal, economic and political problem.
By law, the most dangerous machines have to be sold with infrared or temperature-sensitive devices designed to shut the machine down when hands or limbs extend past a safety zone.
But in Yongkang's open-air market, where salesmen haggle with customers over the price of pressurized hammers and metal lathes the size of pickup trucks, the law is negotiable. Few customers pay extra for safety screens.
"The customer is God," said the manager at Yangli Group's showroom. "The law and the way things are done here are two different things."
Yongkang's government also does little to enforce a statutory schedule of worker compensation pegged to the degree of injury. Legally, for example, the loss of all fingers on one hand is a sixth-degree injury, mandating compensation of 200,000 yuan, or about $24,000.
In practice, few receive payments of this size without going through lengthy and costly arbitration or court hearings, which can take months or years. Most owners reach settlements with their employees for nominal amounts and pay their bus fare out of town.
By that standard, Huang Ruirong, a 35-year-old migrant from Anhui Province, made out well. After he lost most of the index, middle and ring fingers on his right hand working at a exercise equipment factory, he studied the law. He remained in Yongkang, unpaid, for four months after his injury last year to go through arbitration.
In the end, he went home with 23,000 yuan, about $2,800 — less than he thought he deserved but far more than his boss initially offered.
Back in Anhui, however, the money has vanished. His aging parents needed medical care. He has had to pay fellow villages to take care of his family's land because he could not plant or harvest rice with a crippled right hand. Recently he traveled to Shanghai in search of jobs for handicapped migrants, but found none.
"Some people tell me I have an unlucky fate," Mr. Huang said. "But I don't think it's fate. I think it's an accident. Accidents can be avoided."