Even after earlier fire, China poultry plant workers didn't query locked doors

DEHUI, China, June 5 Wed Jun 5, 2013 2:55am EDT

DEHUI, China, June 5 (Reuters) - Workers at a poultry slaughterhouse in northeastern China where 119 people died in a fire this week saw nothing odd in the plant's doors being locked, even after a previous fire at the 4-year-old facility.

One 36-year-old worker, who gave her family name as Li, said there had been a fire at the facility, where ammonia is stored for produce refrigeration, three years ago. That was said to have been started by a lighted cigarette.

China's government has said initial investigations into the cause of Monday's blaze point to ammonia gas leaks that triggered explosions, and also blamed flammable building materials, poor design of escape exits and insufficient fire prevention equipment.

The world's second-largest economy has a poor record on workplace safety, where factory fire exits are often locked or blocked to stop workers taking time off or stealing.

The locking of doors, blamed by state media for making the death toll higher - the final toll was revised down from 120 - was common practice, Li said. "They were worried workers would go outside, not work and waste time. Some people also get hungry during work and will go for food. They were worried about that too," she said.

Another worker, hospitalised for inhaling ammonia, said it was not unreasonable to keep the doors locked while the plant was active. "Of course they'd restrict our movement. I don't know why, but it's not unreasonable. Which company allows workers to wander in and out during work hours?" said the male worker, who didn't want to give his name.

MORE SCUFFLES

Relatives of the fire victims protested outside the Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Co plant near Dehui in rural Jilin province for a second day on Wednesday, claiming officials lied about how many people died.

Young men and police stumbled into a ditch during scuffles, and police officers were seen kicking and stamping on one man. The protest was dispersed after around 20 minutes, with at least one man taken away by police.

A man who gave his name as Liu, who lost his daughter in the blaze, said he believed many more were killed, and the authorities were covering up the true number.

"They're lying. If you go and count the numbers, check that name list, it's totally false. You can shoot me, I will still say it," he said angrily as police tried to move him along.

Calls to the company seeking comment would not connect.

The government has detained several people in connection with the fire, but has not given any further details. They will likely face long jail sentences, judging from how previous similar industrial disasters have been handled.

"There's a tendency to over-manage employees, to lock them in, to make sure they don't steal," said Mary Gallagher, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan and an expert on labour relations in China. "But they tend not to take into account the possibility of this kind of occasional accident that then turns into a disaster."

Local fire departments may carry out inspections, but it's mostly about fining factories, said Liu Kaiming, head of the Institute of Contemporary Observation in Shenzhen that advocates labour rights.

"There's no accounting for where those fines go, and we never know if they're used for training or eliminating fire hazards. Fines are currently just a way to increase government income, not to prevent accidents."