Do You Own Pre-Worn Jeans? They May Have Caused Devastating Lung Illnesses In Chinese Workers
Photo Credit: Student and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour
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"Distressed” jeans are designed to make that wear-and-tear look seem oh-so-effortless, but it can be the result of someone’s body taking a real beating.
According to a recent investigation by the advocacy groups Clean Clothes Campaign, War on Want, and Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), several manufacturers in Guangdong, China—which supply global brands such as Levi Strauss, Lee and Wrangler—have used patently unsafe sandblasting techniques on their denim.
Sandblasting usually involves spraying chemicals and mineral dust against textiles to create a weathered look. It is commonly done by hand, using an air gun, though some manufacturers use mechanical sandblasting performed inside special cabinets. Without adequate ventilation and other protections, either technique can expose workers to damaging particles that increase the risk of silicosis, pulmonary fibrosis and other lung and respiratory problems.
Researchers found that while safety conditions varied across the different facilities, “none of the factories where sandblasting was still reported to be taking place provided sandblasters with adequate safety equipment.” From the report:
Workers were not provided with adequate protective wear (e.g. face masks, eye masks and gloves) when they undertook procedures like hand-sanding, polishing, water-based treatment, and chemical spraying (e.g. potassium permanganate). They received no proper training and were not equipped with enough occupational health and safety knowledge to understand the risk of the materials they use every day.
Some workers reported alarming exposures to potassium permaganate, a lightening chemical linked to skin and respiratory irritation . But, they said, “supervisors often dismissed their health concerns, declaring that the chemicals were not harmful in any way.”
On top of the sandblasting hazards, researchers also found that workers reported suffering from fatigue and chronic pain under the strenuous working conditions.
The report indicates that socioeconomic pressures lead struggling migrant garment workers to accept unhealthy conditions as just part of the job. At the Conshing factory, for instance, “although they were aware of the health risks associated with their jobs, they were willing to take the risk for the higher salaries that Conshing offered sandblasters."
Choking on the dust of prosperity
Silicosis is just one of a set of work-induced respiratory diseases, collectively called pneumoconiosis, that have exploded in China over the past two decades of breakneck “modernization.” According to a major new analysis by China Labour Bulletin (CLB), there is no clear data on the scale of the epidemic, in large part because Beijing refuses to fully acknowledge it as a rising occupational health crisis. The actual number of cases nationwide could be as high as six million. Fully covering the healthcare costs of pneumoconiosis patients would cost 120 billion to 250 billion yuan (US $19.6 to $40.7 billion), CLB estimates.
Rates are highest among migrant workers (unofficial local residents) who tend to be poor and from rural areas. Since medicines can cost as much as 1000 yuan (US $162) per month, untold numbers of migrants are priced out of treatment.
Though China has taken steps over the past decade to institute a national healthcare system, the programs are notoriously weak. Moreover, the commercialization of medical services and hospitals under China’s capitalist reforms has also dramatically raised Chinese workers’ healthcare costs. This means many struggling workers rarely have the full costs of their treatment met through healthcare programs.
Since the diseases are workplace-related, worker's comp could theoretically step in to cover that gap. But China's occupational-disease compensation system is bare-bones and fraught with legal hurdles. Workers must prove an employment relationship, which is a "next to impossible" task for many migrant workers, according to CLB, since many lack formal labor contracts. Even when workers’ claims are certified, some bosses simply refuse to pay. With no truly autonomous unions and little legal support, countless garment workers are left basically defenseless.