Tragic fire raises stakes for factories

Updated: 2013-02-02 03:39

By Qiu Quanlin in Shantou, Guangdong (China Daily)

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Guo Mingxin is taking a late afternoon break from his duties — something he hasn't been able to do recently.

Guo is director of the labor and social security office in Chendian township, in the Chaonan district of Shantou, Guangdong province, and he's been on the front line of dealing with a growing issue in recent months — workers seeking help to recover unpaid wages.

"Migrant workers have begun returning home since early this month, and we are quieter than normal."

"But since the fire, many factories immediately paid delayed wages to workers," he said.

The fire he mentioned was at an underwear factory in Chendian on Dec 4, which was started by a migrant worker and killed 14 people.

The town is home to nearly 2,000 small underwear manufacturers, and the tragedy has triggered enormous concerns over an issue that has already gained widespread public attention.

Much of the focus had been on the legal protections being offered to workers, especially those employed by small-scale manufacturers.

When Liu Shuangyun, a migrant worker from Hunan province, set fire to the factory where he worked, he had been arguing with the owners over just 500 yuan ($80) in unpaid wages.

"Before the fire, there were many workers coming to us to help them reclaim unpaid wages.

"Many didn't even know their boss's name, because they changed jobs so frequently," Guo said.

He said the case was an exception because in the past most workers in the township preferred legal ways to recover delayed wage.

"Actually, there were few bosses who intentionally delayed wages for workers.

"They know that they have to pay whatever salaries are due, because labor supplies are so tight at the moment, they don't want to risk losing any workers," Guo told China Daily.

Zhang Chengwen, the father of a girl seriously injured in the fire, said her daughter's wages had never been delayed by the boss.

"Liu Shuangyuan set the fire because of anger after an argument over payment.

"But my daughter told us that the boss seldom delayed workers' salary," he said.

Zhang, who moved from Guizhou province in Southwest China to Chendian 20 years ago, said the family plans to stay in the township.

"Bosses here have begun increasing salaries for workers." Zhang added.

Chendian township had 2,883 registered textile and garment factories last year, of which about 2,000 were underwear manufacturers, according to Liu Haiping, deputy director of Chaonan district economic and trade bureau.

"Most are small factories and make low-quality products, which are shipped to inland regions and overseas," Liu said.

In the township, there are only about 60 factories manufacturing above their designated production capability, he said.

"Small factories depend on orders from large companies because they don't have their own brands," Liu said, adding that workers often change jobs to look for better pay in different factories.

"Factories here can hardly delay wages for workers due to a worsening labor shortfall. Instead, they have to increase salaries to keep workers," Liu said.

Labor shortages in the southern province are expected to worsen after Spring Festival, which falls on Feb 10, provincial labor authorities said.

The Guangdong Human Resources and Social Security Department predicts that the labor shortfall will reach between 1 million to 1.2 million after the festival.

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