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74 lives in one accident: another example of human cost in China’s rapid economic development

This week’s construction site disaster at a power plant in Jiangxi has again exposed the high human cost of the mainland’s breakneck development.

Authorities were still investigating why a scaffolding platform supporting construction cranes collapsed, killing 74 construction workers in Yichun on November 24 but observers said safety might have been sacrificed in the rush to build a cooling tower, a key part of the US$10 billion power plant that local officials were keen to complete.

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The collapse is among the deadliest industrial accidents on the mainland, with the death toll one higher than the official number of fatalities from a landslide of construction waste in Shenzhen in December. An explosion at a chemical warehouse in Tianjin last summer killed at least 165 people.

Beijing has vowed repeatedly to improve workplace safety but, despite a general improvement, tens of thousands of people still die in workplace accidents every year. In all, 66,182 people died in 281,576 workplace accidents last year, an average of 181 deaths a day, according to Xinhua.

Fang Dongping, director of the Tsinghua-Gammon Construction Safety Research Centre, said Beijing’s safety rules were strict on paper but were often neglected on the ground, where speed was valued above quality. “In China, you seldom see builders who are not rushing to get projects done,” Fang said. “The faster companies promise to complete them, the more likely they are to be awarded the ­contracts.”

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At the launch of construction for the Jiangxi plant in July, provincial cadres urged the building company to speed up the work, stressing the need for electricity to support the economy.

And on September 13, the plant’s operator, Shenzhen-listed Jiangxi Ganneng, launched its “Work Hard for 100 Days” campaign, also urging workers to speed up construction.

Keegan Elmer, from Hong Kong labour rights group China Labour Bulletin, said Beijing’s “good-looking safety laws on the books” could only be enforced if workers were given a voice in the daily operations of mines, factories and construction sites.

“There are few ways for workers to resist the pace and the kind of work beyond what is safe,” Elmer said. “Workers need to be in the day-to-day maintenance and control over their own livelihoods. Hopefully we will see more involvement of China’s trade unions in the operations of work safety and worker’s representation on the shop floor.”