The death toll in a fire at a poultry slaughterhouse in northeastern China continues to rise, from an initial count of 43 deaths reported late Sunday night to 119 as of early Monday morning. There were over 300 workers locked inside the factory at the time of the fire, and China’s Xinhua state news service reported that “about 100 workers have managed to escape” despite locks on the plant’s gate. The fire, which began around 6:00 am local time during a shift change, burned for six hours before firefighters were able to extinguish it.
A similar tragedy featuring locked-in workers in the U.S. in 1911 helped galvanize the workplace safety movement, but the deadly fire at Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry’s Mishazi plant is a reminder that no such sweeping reform has followed previous calamities for Chinese workers. Locked or blockaded fire exits exacerbated the loss of life in a 1993 fire that killed 87 factory workers in southern China, and another in 1999 that killed dozens more.
Yet Reuters notes that locked or inaccessible fire exits remain common in Chinese factories, in part because “regulations can be easily skirted by bribing corrupt officials.” Geoffrey Crothall of the workers’ rights organization China Labour Bulletin told the New York Times that “many factories are locked for what the owners or managers consider to be security reasons.”
Coming on the heels of fatal workplace accidents in Cambodia (3 dead) and Bangladesh (1,127 dead), and amid news that a Chinese agriculture company is attempting to buy the largest American pork producer, the Mishazi fire underscores concerns about the interplay between globalization and worker safety around the world.