| DEHUI, China, June 5
DEHUI, China, June 5 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
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.
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
"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."