'End of History' Vibrant in China

Mohammad J Alam alam.m at neu.edu
Sun Aug 4 19:13:31 MDT 2002

Poisoned Back Into Poverty
As China Embraces Capitalism, Hazards to Workers Rise
By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 4, 2002; Page A01

DONGGUAN, China -- Wang Xiao had been working in the sneaker factory for
only a few months when she noticed a strange tingling in her feet. Over
time, the sensation spread to her ankles, then her shins. Her fingertips
went numb next, and her appetite disappeared. Soon, the mother of two was
so weak she could barely climb the stairs to her factory dorm room.

At first, Wang, 33, thought it was just exhaustion from work, or maybe a
stomach flu. After all, she recalled, she had been putting in 17 hours a
day, gluing together sneakers that would be shipped from this industrial
city in southern China to shops across Europe and the United States.
Morning after morning, she joined 2,000 other workers on the assembly lines
at the Taiwanese-owned Anjia Footwear Factory, determined not to quit until
she saved enough to build a new house back in her home village.

She never suspected that toxins in the glue were slowly destroying her
nervous system.

So the numbness continued to spread. It moved past her wrists and up her
forearms. It crept along her legs and seized her knees. Just standing
became a challenge. Finally, too sick to work, Wang quit and went home.
Weeks later, she woke up paralyzed, unable even to wiggle a finger.

Now, despite a year-long search for treatment, Wang remains confined to a
hospital bed, barely able to walk. Her misfortune has been compounded by
medical bills that have wiped out years of savings and knocked her family,
once on the verge of escaping poverty, back into debt and destitution.

Caught in China's wrenching transition from socialism to capitalism, huge
numbers of industrial workers such as Wang are falling ill or suffering
injuries on the job, then fending for themselves with little or no health

Unrestrained by labor unions or a strong legal system, businesses seeking
to maximize profit have allowed job hazards to proliferate. China has
adopted work safety rules, but enforcement is lax because local officials
often can be bribed, and they are worried about chasing away factories that
pay taxes important to their budgets.

Most vulnerable are about 150 million to 200 million migrant workers from
China's impoverished countryside, many so desperate for work they will take
any job, no questions asked. Managers often fire them if they get sick,
sending them back to their villages, where they may never realize the cause
of their illnesses and where access to medical care is least certain.



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