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Now we know why our jobs went to China

Factory explosion at GM supplier in China
Factory explosion at GM supplier in China
Photo by ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

Now we know beyond a shadow of a doubt why many United States manufacturing jobs went to China – the country has little interest in or even recognition of the need for worker safety. This was dramatically illustrated by a metal dust explosion at Zhongrong Metal Products in Kunshan, Jiangsu Province, a factory that provides ‘impeccably polished hubcaps’ for General Motors (through CITIC Dicastal), BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Honda.

One of the first things I learned in loss control engineering was that ANY DUST IS FLAMMABLE if you accumulate large enough quantities. This is why grain elevators and factories making ordinary baking flour can explode if they don’t have proper controls in place. Aluminum dust, so omnipresent at Zhongrong that employees had difficulty seeing, is especially explosive; OSHA regulations require the use of non-sparking tools in this environment. THE NATION, which published this report, contacted a California-based industrial safety expert, who listed the usual precautions found in the United States (ventilation, enclosures, training). This safety expert, Garrett Brown, concluded his e-mail by saying “This incident is nothing less than industrial homicide and all the employers involved bear the responsibility”.

Chinese activists are stirring, and the government has reportedly launched a major investigation, but little actual improvement is expected. There have been chemical disasters in Gansu and Jiangsu, plus two more aluminum dust explosions in Chengdu and Shanghai. In addition to the immediate hazards of fire and death, workers suffer from long-term exposure to chemicals and aluminum dust. These situations would cause numerous lawsuits and much bad press in the United States. We may have been bought and sold, but we wouldn’t put up with this.

Donald Rumsfeld once remarked that ‘people are fungible’ (‘fungible’ meaning interchangeable). That is very little different from saying people are disposable – and that is why we see our jobs going to China and Bangladesh.