Before I had set out to learn more about China, its work-injury problems seemed like distant disasters, as detached as a photo in a waiting-room magazine. Then I spoke with John Ingram of Esis Inc., who is leading an environmental, safety and health program in China for Ace Environmental, Health and Safety Consulting (Shanghai) Co. Ltd., an arm of Ace USA, the property/casualty insurer. When we talked, he was on his fifth trip to China, developing a strategic alliance with Huatai Insurance Co. of China. Enthusiastic and candid, Ingram told me that China is gaining in a few years what America achieved in 100 years of managing occupational risk.
China is beset by an underlying worker hazard: hurried industrialization, with migrants from rural areas providing the bulk of the work force. Migration is not the whole story, but it is a good start to understand where China is now, and where it is heading.
A picture snaps into focus when you consider the unpreparedness of employers, workers, their families and regulators. Out of China's 1.3 billion people, 800 million have until recently lived in rural areas. Between 100 million and 150 million have migrated or are migrating, mostly into a complex network of factories.
A rudimentary system of work injury insurance--"gong shang xian"--is locally financed with crude actuarial design. Rates are set uniformly within a local area as a percentage of payroll. The system provides for medical care for the worker. Indemnity awards are tied to a 10-point scale of injury severity.
So much to improve, and so hard to make things happen. China has six times the mining deaths per capita as does the United States. Blunders by government officials abetted the largely work-site-spread SARS epidemic, which ultimately killed 884 people worldwide, many of them medical personnel.
Ingram says the national government issues reams of regulations but often stops short of forcing companies to correct safety defects. The country's poor record with mining safety has been a rallying cry for the press. On an official Web site, I counted within a six-month period 19 incidents with at least 10 fatalities, with two incidents of 32 deaths and one where 56 workers were killed. During that period, 371 workers died. Death benefits for miners are about $400, according to Martin Ma, a worker advocate for New York City-based Social Accountability International.
The national industrial safety agency recently prohibited local public officials from also owning local mines, reasoning that local government licensing for small mines was lax due to self-dealing.
It is "impossible to underestimate the degree of ignorance about occupational safety among migrant workers," Ma tells me. And where production facilities are layers removed from the limelight of exporting prime contractors, the plant managers and human resources directors might not even be aware of corporate standards demanded by multinational corporations. Ingram and Ma agree corporate standards are helpful in raising awareness about occupational safety. And they agree the national government is intent on change.
Beijing aims to reduce the work fatality rate overall by 35 percent. It is bringing in advisors from industrially advanced countries. Each year, it invites safety professionals from abroad to a large forum for work safety. According to Ingram, upward of 500 people attended the last one. Half the presentations were translated into English.
Now when I read "Made in China," I see a face.
PETER ROUSMANIERE, a Vermont-based consultant and writer, is the workers' comp columnist for Risk & Insurance®.
March 1, 2007
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