After the swirl of poison dust settled, the factory grounds resembled a battlefield, strewn with charred bodies and rubble. The explosion, which left about seventy-five workers dead and 185 injured, wasn’t the scene of an attack, really—just another one of the countless industrial accidents that befall China’s factories each year. But in light of the manufacturing sector’s record of killing, maiming and sickening its workers, some have deemed the blast a form of industrial homicide.
The massive explosion at Zhongrong Metal Products in Kunshan, Jiangsu Province—a subcontracted auto-parts supplier for General Motors and other multinationals—was sparked by a build-up of combustible dust, a byproduct of the metal polishing process used to produce impeccably shiny hubcaps. According to the journal Caixin, the disaster was preceded by a slew of safety lapses. Although the plant was equipped with dust-removal gear, “workers who escaped the blast said the production lines were always enveloped in metallic dust so thick that visibility was severely impaired.” In addition to shoddy facilities, workers reportedly lacked appropriate safety training and had inadequate gear—just ”goggles and a cotton face mask, which could not prevent exposure to dust particles.”
One worker quoted on China.com, Liu Fu Wen, recalled, “Before work every day, no one provided training on safety issues, no one said that dust might explode.” Not only were workers not aware that they were stuck in a virtual powder keg, as Caixin reports, the physical labor was brutally strenuous, with workdays of up to twelve hours.
Though a thorough investigation has been promised, activists see another shameful failure in both government regulation and workplace safety culture. Labor scholar Wang Jiangsong commented on social media (via China Labour Bulletin) that the disaster “exposes a huge black hole in work safety,” and “the safety inspectors were idle on the job and the local trade unions likewise turned a deaf ear.”
Kunshan’s indirect ties to global auto giants underscores how China’s neoliberal explosion allows luxurious consumer products to be sourced from primitive working conditions.
Garrett Brown, a California-based occupational health specialist, tells The Nation via e-mail that from an industrial safety perspective, “aluminum dust is very explosive and any major manufacturer—such as GM—knows this well and knows the control measures to take (ventilation, enclosures, training).” Based on the facts reported so far, he adds, “I would say that these 75 deaths and 185 injuries should never have happened, that the employer(s) involved, from GM down the line, knew better and could have easily prevented this incident. This incident is nothing less than industrial homicide and all the employers involved bear the responsibility.”