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'Made in China' label takes toll; But foreign pressure, courts begin to help workers hurt on job

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SHENZHEN, China -- The industrial revolution that turned "Made in China" into a catch phrase has come at a steep human price and perhaps nowhere is it more painfully apparent than in the apartment of attorney Zhou Litai.

Zhou shares his home with his clients: more than 30 migrant laborers who have lost body parts -- fingers, hands, arms and feet -- in factory accidents.

His living room resembles a hospital ward in wartime. Young men wander about in shirts with empty sleeves. Others shuffle around on prosthetic feet, the soles of their leather work boots scraping softly along the tile floor.

Ma Shuangqing, from central China's Hubei Province, lost his left arm to a lathe built in the 1920s.

"I thought I would come here for a year, make some money and go home," says Ma, 31, repeating the mantra of migrant laborers in south China. "I didn't know I was going to get injured."

Mao Tse-tung once called workers the masters of this country, but today China is among the most dangerous places to work in the world.

Each year, more than 100,000 people die on the job. In 1998, officials say, more than 12,000 laborers were maimed in the factories of this southern boom town alone. The actual number might be twice as many.

This spring, the issue of Chinese working conditions will figure prominently as Congress debates normalizing trade relations with Beijing as a part of China's bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The issue pits organized labor, which fears losing jobs overseas, against big business, which sees China as the world's greatest potential consumer market. It is shaping up as the biggest battle of its kind since passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.

Labor groups such as the AFL-CIO argue that China should not enjoy permanent trading privileges until it improves worker safety and recognizes human rights.

Supporters of the bill, which include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, say increased trade will raise living standards and lead to political and labor reform, as it has in developed countries.

Shenzhen lies in the Pearl River Delta, China's economic engine that runs on foreign investment and migrant labor. The region produces everything from Reebok sneakers and silk blouses for Ralph Lauren to Barbie dolls and Beanie Babies.

Shenzhen's development mirrors the country's industrial revolution over the past two decades. In 1979, it was a fishing community of about 20,000. Today, it is a modern metropolis of glass and steel buildings with a population of 4 million.

Deng Xiaoping, the late Chinese leader, sparked the area's rapid growth by scrapping Mao's planned economy and unleashing market forces.

As factories sprouted from fields, peasants poured in from China's crowded interior seeking better wages.

Common stories

Tens of thousands have lost their limbs or lives in the fulfillment of their ambitions. The story of Huang Lichun is typical.

Huang, a handsome, almost painfully polite man, came in 1997 from Hubei, where he ran a failing tea processing factory.

After working as a security guard, he took a $48-a-month job in the delta's Dongguan City with a company making molds for sneaker soles.

Huang lived in a factory dormitory room crammed with 14 beds where some laborers slept two to a bunk. He often worked 16-hour shifts pouring hot liquid plastic into molds and testing them.

The evening of his injury, he was finishing his second consecutive 18-hour shift and struggling to meet a quota of 60 molds before midnight. As he tried to unblock the plastic dispenser, the machine malfunctioned and clamped down on his hand.

Huang lost some skin, but the damage did not appear too severe, he recalls.

To save money, the factory sent him to a small local hospital instead of a hospital in the provincial capital of Guangzhou. Doctors amputated three fingers and part of his thumb. Physicians later told him they could have been saved, he says.

'Nobody cares'

Huang received some insurance money and reluctantly returned home to face his family. Without his fingers, he couldn't harvest cotton or plant rice. His 13-year-old daughter has to help him wash clothes. He eats with a fork because he can't grasp chopsticks.

"I feel I'm finished," says Huang, who is in his late 20s. "I think China has made a lot of concessions for foreign investors to come here. And if accidents happen, nobody cares."

While stories like Huang's remain commonplace, factories have made small safety improvements because of negative publicity and consumer pressure, according to the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, a labor monitoring group.

In 1993, 87 people died in a Shenzhen toy factory fire after sealed windows and blocked doors prevented their escape.

The government responded by cracking down on the illegal practice of building dormitories on top of workshops, which greatly increased the risk of people dying in fires.

Safety training, though, remains rare.

Last month, 17 people died in a fire at an illegal lighter factory in Huilai County, about 220 miles northeast of Hong Kong. The blaze started when a worker tested a disposable lighter while it was leaking fuel.

Disastrous attempts

If they could, laborers would heed the words of Karl Marx and unite. But the Communist Party has outlawed independent unions and jailed those who have tried to form them. Even informal attempts to organize end in disaster.

Pun Ngai, an anthropologist at the University of Hong Kong, spent six months working in a Shenzhen electronics factory researching working conditions. Guards used cattle prods to punish those who broke midnight curfew, she found. Part of one woman's face turned permanently green after she used a solvent to wash component parts.

When a worker presented a petition demanding an extra meal a day and a pay increase, the factory management not only fired her, it fired all the laborers from her village and her friends.

Frustrated and seemingly powerless, injured workers have turned to local courts for justice.

Building a reputation

Zhou Litai, the Shenzhen attorney, has made his name by taking these politically unpopular cases and winning big awards. Such a thing would have been unthinkable before China passed its first labor law in 1995.

Zhou's first major victory involved a couple killed by a truck at a Shenzhen toy factory. He won $40,000 in damages, a fortune in a country where the average urban income is a little over $700 a year.

"Before, if any worker got killed in a road accident, they were never compensated," says Zhou, 42, a passionate advocate who emphasizes his points by jabbing his finger in the air.

As Zhou began to win, word spread through the delta's hospitals, which devote entire floors to industrial amputees. Most of his clients have neither homes nor jobs, so he set up a two-story apartment where they can live until their cases are settled.

Zhou, who earns his fees on a contingency basis, has filed more than 200 suits since 1997 and won at least 40. Most of the rest are pending.

'Hated and feared'

His victories have angered local officials who rely on foreign investors for taxes and bribes. They tried and failed to revoke his law license and sent police to his hometown of Chongqing to dig up dirt on his past, he says.

"In Shenzhen and Guangdong Province, I'm hated and feared," says Zhou, who has been profiled in newspapers and television programs around the country.

Zhou's success is due as much to his skill and China's desire to build the rule of law as it is to the regime's need to maintain stability in a rapidly changing society.

With millions laid off from state-owned factories and more pouring in from the countryside, labor demonstrations have become common. After China's expected accession to the WTO, foreign competition could throw another 14 million farmers out of work.

Many will head for factories here.

Averting violence

Much as some authorities complain about Zhou, he might be helping them. Without people like him and protection from the courts, injured workers might resort to violence and join the growing ranks of people disillusioned with the Communist Party and its authoritarian rule.

Zhou Xianping, 24, from southwest China's Sichuan province, lost both feet three years ago when he was electrocuted by a naked power line in a chemical factory. A trail of seared flesh runs from his cheek down the length of his body where he was burned.

Zhou Litai, no relation, has won him $9,000 in compensation and hopes to double that on appeal. If it weren't for his attorney, the injured laborer says he might have extracted justice through other means.

"I might have gone back and got some friends and kidnapped my boss," he said.

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