Deadly China poultry fire highlights need for independent trade unions

 07-06-2013

The IUF is saddened but not surprised at the deaths of 120 workers when a fire swept through the Baoyuanfeng poultry plant in northeast China on June 2. When the fire broke out there were 350 workers trapped in the processing facility and only one narrow exit.

Workers reported that the factory kept doors locked and that there had been no warning or training about workplace hazards such as the ammonia which is thought to have started the fire.The factory had had been praised by the Chinese government for its ‘innovative approach’ to poultry processing and was recognized as a ‘top 100’ agricultural firm in Jilin Province.

Chinese state media now report that officials have concluded that working conditions were too crowded, fire escape routes and procedures poor and inspections substandard.

Why was this dangerous situation tolerated?

Most reports have focused on corrupt state officials’ cozy relationship with business at the expense of worker and product safety and environmental degradation. But state officials and employers will tolerate dangerous workplaces as long as workers are not free to organize collectively for workplace safety. The root cause of the Baoyuanfeng fire and other workplace tragedies lies in the denial of workers’ rights to form independent trade unions, their sole means for exercising human rights at the workplace.

In response to the clothing factory collapse at Rana Plaza, the Government of Bangladesh announced changes to the Labour Act which would for the first time enable workers to form unions without employer approval. It remains to be seen how vigorously this right will be protected. We can expect no similar move by the Chinese Government: the state-sponsored ACFTU will watch from the sidelines as workers continue to be denied their right to organize unions independent of employers and the government. Unless and until Chinese workers secure this right, workplace tragedies will continue.

Poultry workers globally suffer the consequences of fierce employer opposition. The industry is plagued with low wages, intense line speeds, high rates of repetitive strain and other injuries and extreme exploitation of a vulnerable workforce which is often heavily reliant on migrant labor. Consumers concerned about the quality and safety of the product should look to remedying these conditions by supporting efforts to build strong independent unions empowered to negotiate and enforce strict safety standards.