Copyright 2004 The Charlotte Observer |
Charlotte Observer (North Carolina)
November 9, 2004 Tuesday ONE-THREE
SECTION: BUSINESS; Pg. 1D
LENGTH: 1183 words
HEADLINE: CHINESE FIND JOBS ARE POISON;
FAMILIES MAY SUFFER TOO, BUT WORKERS FACE THREATS IF THEY
COMPLAIN TO BEIJING
BATTERY FACTORY CADMIUM
BYLINE: TIM JOHNSON, KNIGHT
DATELINE: HUIZHOU, China
In a little less than a
year, some 600 workers in two factories in southern China have been
tainted with cadmium, a heavy metal that can cause severe body
pain, nausea, uncontrolled urine flow, memory loss and liver failure.
Huizhou, barely an hour's drive from Hong Kong, is a
hub of global battery production, and in today's global economy, the
nickel-cadmium battery that powers a train set or race car under a
Christmas tree in America might have come from a factory there.
One reason Chinese-made products are so inexpensive
is that local officials allow factories to overlook occupational-safety
laws. Factory workers sustain all kinds of injuries, then are cast off
like the toys and sneakers they assemble. China has no independent labor
unions, and its courts are easily influenced by local Communist Party
In Huizhou, at least 37 workers were
hospitalized for observation, some of them complaining of intense pain.
"My hair is falling out and my throat hurts," said
Wei Xuexiu, a 33-year-old manager at one of the factories, who was on
medical leave but not hospitalized.
"I often get
headaches," said Yao Qunhuai, a fellow worker. "I feel that my memory is
The two factories where they and the
other employees tainted with cadmium worked are a division of Gold
Peak Industries. Gold Peak batteries sell widely in Asia but have only a
tiny share of the estimated $10.7 billion U.S. battery market. Factory
workers who spoke to Knight Ridder said the rechargeable
nickel-cadmium batteries they made were mostly for toys. Similar
batteries are used in laptop computers and cameras.
Gold Peak declined to specify which brands sold in U.S. stores
contain its batteries. A Hong Kong public-relations specialist hired by
the company, Paul Sham, said GP batteries generally were unbranded and
were in toys and other devices.
Facts of poisoning in dispute
factors that led to the occupational safety catastrophe at the two GP
Battery factories are in dispute.
labor-rights advocates said factory owners were in cahoots with local
officials and disregarded safety laws to keep costs down. Employees said
they weren't told of the dangers of cadmium and initially were
barred from wearing masks. Ventilation is still poor, they said. Launching
its own probe, the environmental group Greenpeace found that the factories
were discharging cadmium into local drainage systems.
Gold Peak described the poisoning of workers as a
"Our top management is very
sad and regrets to see this happen," Andrew Chuang, an executive director
at Gold Peak Industries, said in a telephone interview from Hong Kong.
"One of the most important things we want to do is ensure absolute safety
for our workers."
Occupational ailments are
common in China. In Guangdong province, known as the "world's workshop,"
most of the 18 million or so factory workers are poorly educated migrants
from elsewhere in China who don't know much about the impact of chemicals,
heavy metals and solvents.
They learn fast,
though, once they begin to get sick.
information," said Yang Yinghua, a 24-year-old from Hunan province,
holding up a photocopy of a medical text. "It says, 'Cadmium is
extracted from the body extremely slowly. It can take 10 to 30 years for
cadmium to flush out of the kidneys.' "
Yang, like hundreds of other workers, found that her job at one
of the GP Battery factories left her nauseated, with severe back pain and
with cadmium lodged in her body.
said the dusty powder they packed into rechargeable nickel-cadmium
batteries was sticky and turned their clothes red.
"It was extremely dirty in the factory, but we had no idea it was
poisonous," said one worker, who still holds her job and spoke on
condition of anonymity.
By late 2003, workers
complained of ailments and demanded medical tests. When the first tests
showed excessive levels of cadmium, a few employees were sent to
the hospital. By June, many workers were beside themselves. They held a
three-day strike, demanding blood and urine testing for the 2,700
employees at the two factories.
Some workers who
paid for private blood tests said the results showed higher levels of
cadmium than the company-sponsored tests did.
With a crisis unfolding, managers at the plants began asking
ailing employees to accept lump-sum payments, sometimes as little as
$2,500, and forgo legal action.
accepted the payments spoke bitterly of the parting advice that factory
managers gave them about coping with a possible lifetime disability.
"The factory told us we should drink more milk, eat
more fruit, have more nutritious food," said Wei, the former midlevel
Some employees paid to have their
children tested and were shocked to find that they also had excessive
"They offered me a buyout.
I said, 'What about my daughter?' They said, 'We don't recognize the
medical test for her,' " said one frightened worker, who added that she
was never warned about working at the factory while pregnant.
China's labor law says workers are "entitled to know
the dangerous elements" at their jobs and are empowered to make
suggestions to improve safety.
But about a dozen
employees interviewed from the two GP factories said they weren't told how
to handle cadmium safely. They were barred from wearing masks right
after the factory opened in 1994, then after a few years were allowed to
wear only rudimentary paper masks.
City has conflict of interest
Under Chinese law, workplace inspectors are supposed to make
regular checks, but GP Battery somehow escaped notice. The parent company,
Gold Peak Holdings, and Huizhou's city government are business partners.
Both hold major stakes in another huge local company, TCL, one of the
world's biggest producers of television sets.
they have the same interests," said Au Loong-yu, a member of the editorial
board of Globalization Monitor, a Hong Kong publication that's championed
the cause of the battery factory workers. "The collusion between the GP
management and the local officials is so outrageous."
The Huizhou city government declined repeated requests for
comment on why safety rules apparently weren't enforced at the
On Sept. 3, Huizhou city officials and
GP Battery issued a joint letter to workers warning that if they tried to
take complaints to Beijing they might face legal charges.
By early October, lawyer Zhou Litai sued GP Battery on behalf of
65 workers, claiming they weren't told of dangerous conditions.
GP Battery ceased producing nickel-cadmium
batteries at the plants by early July, changing to other types of
batteries. The firm says only two people have been diagnosed with "chronic
occupational cadmium poisoning," while others are under
Brenda Lee, deputy general manager
at Gold Peak, brushed off concerns about those with lesser levels of
"The levels of
cadmium in the body will go down gradually," Lee said.
NOTES: Graphic 'HUIZHOU' not in database; please see
GRAPHIC: GRAPHIC:1 PHOTO:2;
1. PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONTIM JOHNSON - KNIGHT RIDDER, TRIBUNE
PHOTOTIM JOHNSON - KNIGHT RIDDER, TRIBUNE PHOTO. Xie Dongfa, a 25-year-old
former employee of the battery factory, shows the thin paper mask he was
permitted to wear to prevent inhaling cadmium dust. Even so, he
suffered excessive cadmium levels in his body and quit the job in
fear he might fall seriously ill. 2. Workers from the GP Battery
factories, some covering their faces, hold up medical tests showing high
cadmium levels in their bodies.
LOAD-DATE: November 10, 2004