After a massive gas well explosion killed 243 people in southwest China last December, the State Council and National People's Congress have an-nounced new rules for industrial safety. The authorities' response follows a familiar pattern: high-profile pronouncements in the wake of disaster give way to neglect of basic safety standards. But if Western experience is any guide, ad hoc responses to high rates of work accidents won't reduce the risks to Chinese workers. Only the development of basic legal institutions will help make Chinese workplaces safer.
China and other developing Asian economies are experiencing an industrial accident crisis of world-historical proportions. Official sources report 14,675 industrial-accident deaths in China last year, but statistics on workplace accidents are notoriously unreliable, and some observers suggest that the number may be closer to 120,000.
China's coalmines are among the most dangerous places to work in the world. Chinese garment factories have repeatedly experienced disasters on a par with the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City a century ago, which killed 146 workers, all young women.
Conditions may well get worse before they get better. Even though China instituted new initiatives in industrial safety at the beginning of last year, official estimates indicate that industrial accident deaths increased by almost 10 percent last year.
Yet as the example of the Triangle fire suggests, the China's experience is not unprecedented. Until the recent Asian accident crisis, the poorest workplace safety record in world history belonged to the US in the 50 years following the American Civil War.
Coalmines in Pennsylvania in the 1860s -- where 6 percent of the workers were killed each year, 6 percent crippled, and another 6 percent temporarily disabled -- looked very much like the mines now operating in Shaanxi Province. Industry-wide, one American worker in 50 at the turn of the last century was killed or seriously disabled each year in work-related accidents. Accidents were the leading cause of death among workers in dozens of hazardous industries.
Of course, American industry is still plagued by serious safety problems. But seen from a historical perspective, there has been a striking decline in work-related injuries and deaths in the US. There were 30,000 annual work-related fatalities a century ago; today, the annual average is around 5,000, even as the population has tripled.
What explains this huge improvement in occupational safety in the US? Increased union membership in the mid-20th century clearly helped, as workers bargained and lobbied for improved working conditions. In recent decades, some of the most dangerous work has been shipped overseas (ironically, much of it to China). And as Americans have grown wealthier, they have been willing to spend more on safety.
But the deeper historical reasons for improved workplace safety lie in an array of legal institutions developed by workers, employers, lawyers and lawmakers at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. American workers' organizations, for example, developed insurance benefits for their members and sought to exercise collective control to improve workplace safety. American lawyers developed modern accident law that created remedies against negligent employers.
Most importantly, drawing on reforms first implemented in Germany, England, and France, workers' compensation statutes provided compensation for injured workers and created powerful incentives for employers to reduce accident tolls. In the 1910s, American workplace injuries began to fall in virtually every industry, except coal mining (where injury rates remained high for several decades).
Each of these innovations helped create an institutional infrastructure capable of dealing with the problem of work accidents -- and, indeed, with the wider social problems of disability, sickness, old age, and unemployment.
Why? Because workplace safety and industrial accident compensation turned out to be critical early tests of Western legal systems' administrative capacity to deal with the systemic problems of industrial free-market societies.
Of course, what worked for the US may not work for China. There are many different ways that legal systems can respond to occupational safety problems. The US, for example, never developed a powerful body of factory inspectors capable of providing effective enforcement of public safety standards. Other Western states, such as Germany, have successfully relied on centralized regulation and social insurance systems ever since Otto Bismarck reformed the German law of accidents in the 1880s.
China is obstructing all available paths to improved workplace safety. National safety standards and inspection regimes reflect the underlying pathologies of the Chinese state, in which lower-ranking officials report only positive information up the bureaucratic food chain. At the same time, limits on workers' ability to organize independent unions have inhibited grassroots forms of safety monitoring. Even Chinese media have come under fire for uncovering the kinds of workplace hazards that US journalists revealed a century ago.
Lawsuits are apparently increasingly common, but they are notoriously cumbersome, and judges are not independent from factory bosses. Compensation awards to injured workers and their families are pitifully low and fail to give employers incentives to make their workplaces safe.
The lesson of the US and European experiences is that improving workplace safety depends on the development of basic rule-of-law standards in courts, workplaces and administrative bureaucracies. Edicts and exhortations from the State Council are all well and good. But only effective legal institutions, not Chinese Communist Party fiat, will reduce Chinese workers' risk of death or injury on the job.
John Fabian Witt is an associate law professor at Columbia University and author of The Accidental Republic: Crippled Workingmen, Destitute Widows, and the Remaking of American Law.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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