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After another factory fire, Asian workers could use an injury and illness prevention standard. So could we

Another Asian factory made headlines this week as a fire at a Chinese poultry plant on Monday killed at least 119 people. Of course, this comes on the heels of the collapse of the garment factory in Rana Plaza, which killed 1,127 workers, as well as a fire at another Bangladeshi garment factory a week later, which took the lives of at least another eight workers. 

In this week’s fire at the Baoyuanfeng Poultry Plant, the death toll is expected to be so high because many of the exits out of the factory were blocked, locked or inadequate, hindering workers’ ability to safely leave the burning building.

If this all sounds a little too familiar, think back to the fires at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City last century or the Imperial Foods Plant in Hamlet, N.C., in 1991. In both of those fires, workers remained trapped behind locked doors. But after each of these fires, labor groups, workers, and the public all mobilized to improve workplace safety and prevent these kinds of needless fatalities.

It’s time for employers and government officials in Asia to treat this recent spate of workplace disasters as a wakeup call to the need to improve working conditions across the continent. It’s time for workers in these factories to mobilize and demand safer workplaces and protections on the job.

In Asia and the U.S. alike, these tragedies must remind us that workers’ safety must outweigh profits and workers must receive adequate protections on the job. On both continents, an injury and illness prevention standard could require employers to find and fix workplace hazards before such a tragedy can occur. Whistleblower protection is also essential so that workers do not fear retaliation for pointing out or voicing up about unsafe working conditions. 

As the Associated Press reported today, “Chinese workers have little power to demand safety improvements because they cannot effectively unionize. China has only one official Communist Party-controlled trade union, whose local branches work closely with officials and company management.

Chinese statistics show a gradual decline in the number of industrial accidents, but the death toll remains alarmingly high. The State Administration of Work Safety said worker deaths fell from 79,552 in 2010 to 75,572 in 2011, before dipping by another 5 percent last year.

The United States, which has a population less than one-quarter the size of China’s, reports less than 5,000 work-related deaths per year.”

The number of Chinese worker fatalities reported is likely a substantial underestimate of the true number of worker fatalities in the country, said Tom O’Connor, executive director of National COSH.

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