Factory conditions in China: “The machines eat hands”

Global Times,  September 14 2010

[In mid-August, advocates of workers’ rights and solidarity activists in Hong Kong released a shocking report on the oppressive factory conditions in China.  Elec-Tech, a major appliance manufacturer (and a key supplier of Walmart’s overwhelming dominance of the multi-billion dollar home appliance market) was regularly and routinely maiming and discarding workers on their unsafe production machines.  Courageous workers defied company threats and stepped forward to expose these conditions and the fact that many have lost limbs and faced discipline and been fired—with no compensation for their injuries and the crushing effect on their lives.

Once the story came to light, both Walmart and the Chinese government (having faced global rebuke from the Foxconn scandal) moved to avoid responsibility and distance themselves from Elec-Tech, which they blamed for the whole mess. Walmart “ordered” Elec-Tech to correct the safety hazards.  And the Chinese government-owned press issued the following news—in their internationally distributed English paper—to foreign readers, but published nothing in Chinese to their domestic Chinese readers.  (After this news article, see the initial reports from SACOM (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior).-ed.]

One – handed justice

At midnight on June 10 last year, a scream broke the monotonous echo of dozens of pounding molding machines at the Elec-Tech factory in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province.  “My palm is crushed!” a voice screamed.

It was Ruan Libin, a newly hired 21-year-old migrant worker from a village 800 kilometers away in Hunan Province. He had been working for a month but it was his fourth night shift and only the third time he had operated the 60-ton molding machine.

A great pain washed over Ruan. He felt dizzy for a moment, and then saw his blood all over the 3-meter tall machine that had suddenly crushed his left hand.

His colleagues, mostly in their early 20s, quickly surrounded him. Three minutes later, the head of a work unit arrived. He made a few phone calls, and helped Ruan walk to the factory gate. After another ten minutes, Ruan was finally helped into a factory-owned car. He sat in the car while his hand bled and hurt like hell. When he got to the hospital an hour later, Ruan almost lost consciousness.

But he remembered a scene that night in the hospital. He was put on an operating table, his eyes were covered with cloth. He heard the sound of sawing, it was quite rough as it sawed through something stubborn, and the room was filled with the smell of flesh and blood. That’s the moment Ruan knew that he lost his left hand forever.

“When I was sent back to the recovery ward after the operation, I cried for so long that I didn’t know when I fell asleep,” said Ruan. Remembering it all 15 months later was tough for Ruan. He couldn’t look at his left arm directly until recently and when he glances at it accidentally he looks quickly away.

‘What if?’

Five months later, the social security department diagnosed Ruan’s injury as a fifth-level deformity. (There are 10 levels, with one being the worst.) When experts examined his amputated limb, they sighed and said, “If only you hadn’t lost your wrist, you wouldn’t have lost the entire function of your hand.”

Ruan couldn’t help but think of the “what ifs.”

What if the factory had dialed the health emergency number instead of waiting 20 minutes to transfer him to a factory-owned car.

What if the company sent him to the nearest hospital, instead of one an hour away on the opposite side of the city?

What most concerned Ruan was why the accident happened. He remembered that when he was hired, he’d been told that Elec-Tech supplies a wide range of home appliances to Wal-Mart.

During his first month, he was only ordered to do some legwork. On June 7, he started to operate the molding machine by himself after being instructed how to do it only once. The machine was one of many old pedal operated models at Elec-Tech.

“It isn’t safe,” Ruan said. “We had to push a peddle for it to work. The safety rule was to push the pedal once at a time, not repeatedly, or the machine would smash your hand. However, everyone kept repeatedly pushing the pedal in order to work faster to meet the quota.”

While at the hospital, Ruan found that he was not alone. Seven other injured Elec-Tech workers were there, while others were sent elsewhere. Some had lost their fingers and some lost their toes.

“The machines eat hands!” said an anonymous colleague of Ruan, whose hand bones were crushed. He also told the Global Times that workers always worked overtime with little safety protection or instruction.

“The frontline management does not care about work safety. The more productivity we can achieve, the more bonuses they can earn,” he said.

Later, Wal-Mart made two unannounced audits at Elec-Tech’s Zhuhai plants and identified 55 incidents of staff injuries in the past 12 months, South China Morning Post and Bloomberg reported.

As much as the law requires

Ruan’s family didn’t know about his injury, until Ruan called his cousin Yuan Xiaolu in October last year. She cried when she heard the news.

When Ruan’s parents, both farmers in their 60s, saw their one-handed son return for the Chinese New Year 2010, they cried for a week, he said.

“How can you find a wife? What will you live on for the rest of your life?” the parents asked.

His cousin noticed that Ruan seldom wore the 22,000-yuan ($3,243) prosthetic hand paid by the social security department.  It was too heavy, Ruan complained. When asked why he didn’t have a lighter, higher quality one, he said the company wouldn’t pay the extra fee.

His one-off compensation totaled 109,000 yuan – 20,000 yuan from social security and 89,000 from Elec-Tech. It all complied strictly with the law. But 109,000 yuan can’t even buy a bathroom in Beijing.

Looking at his aging parents who still worked hard in the farmland, Ruan packed up and returned to Elec-Tech to negotiate for more money.

When factory negotiators heard he wanted more because he thought the accident was the factory’s fault, they laughed and told Ruan they’d paid as much as the law required.

Ruan didn’t give up. He hired a lawyer.

Testing the legal waters

Ruan’s lawyer Pang Kun collected evidence of Elec-Tech’s negligence, including its use of old unsafe equipment, inadequate safety training, delays for Ruan’s treatment and more.

Pang believed that other than the legally required responsibility for work-related injuries, the factory bore responsibility for Ruan’s injury and on July 29 this year filed suit in Xiangzhou District People’s Court in Zhuhai citing infringement of personal rights and asking for a total of 265,158 yuan.

“The case is testing the waters for whether a factory should take responsibility when an injury happens due to negligence,” said Pang.

Zhou Changzheng, a professor of law at Nanjing University told the Global Times that such lawsuits are rarely tried in China and have no record of success so far.

“If you take a close look at the rampant cases of work-related injuries in China, a large part of them were caused, or partially caused, by factory negligence,” Zhou said. “However, according to the law, no matter who caused the injury – the factory or worker – the worker can only get the compensation dictated by the law.”

As work-related injuries become increasingly rampant in China, most of the issues do not involve whether the factory should pay more or not, but whether the injured worker can be compensated at all, said Zhou who has worked on many such cases.

Some workers were satisfied with their compensations. “Unlike some other factories, Elec-Tech  compensated us fast, and always do it according to law,” another worker who requested anonymity told the Global Times.

Legal representatives from the company even laughed in court, saying the case and the charge were jokes with no legal foundation, Ruan said.

“Instead of spending a lot of money on improving the working environment or training the workers, the company just threw the young workers into the front line of the battlefield. You’re lucky if you’re not injured. If you are, you will soon be paid off in the much-practiced way of compensation, to throw you couple of thousand yuan, which is nothing compared to their profits,” Ruan said. Elec-Tech posted net profits of 49 million yuan in 2009 following a 162 million yuan loss in 2008. While Wal-Mart’s earnings rose 3.6 percent in Q2 2010 to $3.59 billion, driven mainly by sales growth in China and Brazil, according to Bloomberg.

“According to the law, there were only two ways to constrain the factory: one is that the rate of social security insurance will rise if a factory has too many injuries, the other is that one could ask the government to inspect the factory’s safety level,” said Zhou.

Call to Elec-Tech went unanswered by press time.

“If the case succeeds, it would set up a model for injured workers to fight for their rights against the negligent companies. If it fails, it will raise a question concerning litigation, in that there might be a flaw in the legal system,” said Lawyer Pang.

Wal-Mart looks in

The Elec-Tech situation also drew the attention of Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, a non-profit Hong Kong-based organization that lobbies companies on labor conditions. Sacom came to Zhuhai to investigate the factory. On August 18 it published a report of Elec-Tech’s “rampant labor rights violations” based on interviews with seven injured workers. It also asked Wal-Mart to conduct an inquiry of its supplier.

After Wal-Mart launched its probe, Elec-Tech issued a statement on August 21 that promised improved safety conditions in the workplace and offered additional financial compensation to those disabled by industrial mishaps.

On September 12, Liu Weicheng, regional manger for the Ethical Sourcing Department of Wal-Mart, confirmed Sacom’s report to the Global Times. Wal-Mart has stipulated that the repairs on the machines or their replacements. Elec-Tech has suspended using the old machines and invited the Institute for Sustainable Communities, an international non-profit group, to evaluate the factory safety conditions.

But Ruan didn’t know any of this. No newspapers in the mainland have reported a story in the language he is able to read.

The company called Ruan recently to come negotiate further. But when Ruan went to Zhuhai, a manager refused to talk about the core issue of more compensation, he said.

“Do you have any difficulties? Is there anything we can do for you?” Ruan said the manager asked him, saying the company could pay his train costs and accommodations in Zhuhai.

“I don’t need anything right now, but there is a tough life a head of me and that’s where the problem lies.” Ruan told the Global Times.

One day at home, inspired by a TV program he watched, Ruan came up with the idea of organizing a performance art piece by young people who had lost their fingers and hands at the factory.

The plan was for a row of young handicapped workers to sit on a production line, making rubber hands and arms with the Elec-Tech logo on a sign beside the worktable.

“It’s called the factory that produces severed fingers and hands,” Ruan said.

The plan was postponed because Elec-Tech called. But he is still waiting for them to talk about specific compensation, rather than issues like train tickets.

“If the problem is not solved, I’ll still bring on the show,” he said.


Wal-Mart Supplier Severs Fingers, Hands

August 19, 2010

Guest Comments by SACOM (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior)

HONG KONG – This month, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), based in Hong Kong, visited seven workers who suffered industrial accidents at Elec-Tech on the Chinese mainland. The following findings emerge from in-depth interviews with the workers.

“Elec-Tech is a factory that produces severed fingers and hands,” said Ruan Li Bing, who lost his forearm in a 2009 accident. “After so many injury cases, Elec-Tech has become professional at handling the incidents. All injured workers immediately are sent to the PLA No. 168 Hospital.”

Within a year starting in July 2009, more than 60 workers at Elec-Tech’s Zhuhai production facilities went through disability assessments after industrial injuries. We hardly can imagine how many fingers, hands and arms were severed earlier.

Factory machines smash and slice not just body parts, but workers’ futures too. After an amputation, it’s unlikely for a young worker to find a new job. Many were family breadwinners. Some dreamed of saving money to marry or open small shops, aspirations that soon fade away.

It can be heartbreaking to notice how the victims try to hide mutilated hands or wrist stumps inside sleeves or pockets, especially in public. Even compensation paid to legal standards fails to soften the psychological impact.

Outrageously, Elec-Tech fails to halt more tragedies. “Our torment doesn’t bother Elec-Tech at all,” said a male worker receiving hospital treatment. “It doesn’t care about ongoing dangers in the factory.” The machine that maimed him remains in operation, not replaced or repaired.

Unsafe machines, inadequate training, lack of protective gear and pressures to work faster cause the injuries. Other problems include: imposing fines on industrial-injury victims, excessive overtime (up to 310 hours a month), lack of rest days and arbitrary wage calculations.

As a major Elec-Tech client, the retail giant Wal-Mart has a responsibility to ensure factory safety and decent working conditions. So we urge Wal-Mart to:
— investigate safety at Elec-Tech and issue a corrective plan;
— work with Elec-Tech to replace old, unsafe machines;
— compensate all industrial-injury victims;
— provide labor-rights training to factory workers, stressing work safety;
— facilitate a workers’ committee to monitor factory conditions;
— publicize a list of Elec-Tech industrial injuries; and
— make available a complaint hotline for workers.

Such serious workplace injuries represent more than just accidents. They are man-made tragedies that could have been prevented.


Foxconn and Elec-Tech – a tale of two factories

By Geoff

Created 08/19/2010 – 13:43

As Foxconn was staging its elaborate song and dance show yesterday to convince the world that, after a string of suicides earlier this year, everything was now fine and the workers in its Chinese factories were happy, a Hong Kong activist group released a report on a lesser known factory where appalling work conditions have clearly not improved.

In the last year alone, more than 60 workers at Elec-Tech International, a manufacturer of small home appliances, have been injured, many losing fingers and hands while operating antiquated and dangerous machinery at the company’s plant in Zhuhai, according to the report by Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM).

Even more troubling is that Elec-Tech has made no effort to repair or replace the faulty machinery; “Our torment does not bother Elec-Tech at all! They don’t care about the ongoing danger in the factory,” SACOM quoted one employee as saying. He was in hospital receiving treatment while the machine that injured him was still in operation.

No training is given to machine operators at Elec-Tech, employees are forced to work excessively long hours, and, most outrageously of all, the company even imposes fines on accident victims for their “mistakes” in the operation of the machinery.

Moreover, in the wake of the report, the company is now putting pressure on injured workers not to talk about their case to anyone outside the company.

Despite the fact that Elec-Tech supplies products to American retail giant Walmart, SACOM’s report has thus far received little attention from the international media, which has instead given considerable coverage to Foxconn’s publicity stunt.

One journalist who did follow up the story, Beijing-based Kathleen McLaughlin, was told by Elec-Tech “Why don’t you call Foxconn?”

Hopefully now that the Foxconn circus is over, more attention will be paid to the plight of the Elec-Tech workers, many of whom are struggling to get proper compensation for their career-ending injuries.

For more information on the case, please contact SACOM’s Debby Chan on 852 2392 5464 Email debby@sacom.hk

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