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This Day in Labor History: May 10, 1993

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On May 10, 1993, the Kader toy factory in the Nakhom Pathom province of Thailand, just outside of Bangkok, caught on fire, killing 188 workers, severely injuring over 500, and breaking the all-time death toll for a factory workplace, previously held by the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York in 1911. The largest workplace disaster in Thai history, the Kader fire should have demonstrated the to the world the very real costs of outsourcing unsafe working conditions to the world’s poor countries. Unfortunately, the event received relatively little media attention and created no momentum for improving safety standards in the world’s factories.

The Kader factory was largely owned by Charoen Pokphand Group, a huge Thai conglomerate with concerns primarily in agribusiness; as of 2003 it was the world’s 5th largest transnational food corporation. CP owned 80% of the factory, the Hong-Kong based Kader Company owned about 20%, including the name. The factory manufactured toys, mostly stuffed animals and plastic dolls, for the international market. It received large contracts from Arco, Hasboro, Tyco, Toys-R-Us, Fisher Price, and other leading toy companies. Approximately 3000 workers toiled in this factory, with about 1500 in Building No. 1. Most of the workers were young women, some underage using fake IDs to get by age restrictions on labor. Thai women frequently add to family income, so many families encouraged their daughters to travel to Bangkok for factory labor.

This factory opened in January 1989, but already had a history of unsafe conditions. The original plant burned in August 1989 and the company’s license was suspended that November. But the Thai Ministry of Industry allowed the new plant to open on July 4, 1990. In February 1993, another fire struck one of the factory buildings. It was still closed when the main fire started in May. Thai law only provided minimum wage for full-time workers. Thus Kader and other manufacturers rarely employed people as full-time laborers. 47% of Thai employers did not pay the minimum wage. Compulsory overtime frequently kept workers until midnight, or even 5 a.m. if a deadline approached. Workers had their pay docked if they did not meet production quotas. On the 4th floor of Kader, 800 workers toiled. On that floor were 8 toilets.

None of this mattered to the American and European corporations outsourcing toy production to the developing world. They sent orders to Kader, demanding exact specifications for their markets, and asked no questions about wages, hours, working conditions, or safety. That was the advantage of outsourcing. These became irrelevant questions for corporations–so long as the costs were kept low. If costs rose, Tyco and Hasboro would move operations to another factory, another country.

At about 4 pm, a small fire broke out in one corner of Building No. 1. No one is really sure how the fire started, although a cigarette seems most likely. The workers were told to continue working. The fire alarm did not work and the fire spread rapidly in a factory full of finished plastic products. Security guards and employees tried to put the fire out but found themselves quickly overwhelmed with a rapidly spreading conflagration that soon spread to Buildings No. 2 and 3. Much like the Triangle Fire of 1911 in the United States, employers had locked the downstairs fire exits in order to maintain more control over workers. Fleeing back upstairs, the workers flooded the upper fire exits, causing them to collapse under all the weight. Workers began jumping from the upper stories to escape the flames. Then the main building collapsed from the heat of the fire. If this sounds much like the procession of events at Triangle, outside of the structural collapse, commenters at the time noted the same thing as well, ranging from a lack of fire safety training to highly combustible industrial products unsafely stored to the high number of women killed.



The dead at Kader.

Said one survivor, “I didn’t know what to do. Finally I had no other choice but to join others and jump out the window. I saw many of my friends lying dead on the ground beside me. I injured my legs but I came out alive.” Said another, “In desperation, I went back and forth looking down below. The smoke was so thick and I picked the best place to jump in a pile of boxes. My sister jumped too. She died.” The symbol of the fire was a melted Bart Simpson doll. The fire took place at the height of The Simpsons craze and the factory is where most Simpsons material was produced.

Melted Bart, symbol of the Kader fire.

Like many horrible factory accidents, shoddy design combined with employer malfeasance and a lack of basic safety standards to create an easily preventable disaster. The building was constructed with uninsulated steel girders that would collapse in 15 minutes during a fire. Basic infrastructure investment, even if none of the other problems had been alleviated, would have likely saved dozens of lives.

Although initially resisting any compensation, CP agreed to pay $8000 to the families of each dead worker and agreed to help pay the education costs of orphaned children. The Thai government announced improved safety and health standards. Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai traveled to the factory site on the night of the tragedy and pledged greater fire safety for Thai workers. But no one from CP or the factory managers received even a day in jail. The management was fined $12,000 for building code violations. Safety and health standards in Thai factories have not improved in any meaningful fashion since 1993, nor have they in many of the other manufacturing nations of southeast Asia. One big reason for this of course is that all the incentive for governments and business owners is to do nothing because the less they do, the more the big American, European, and Japanese corporations are pleased with low costs.

A memorial to Kader victims.

As I have suggested in the aftermath of the Bangladesh fire, now the largest tragedy in the history of industrial factories, with over 900 dead, perhaps the only way to stop corporations from taking advantage of poor nations and corrupt politicians to replicate the terrible working conditions of the Triangle Fire, Kader fire, and Bangladesh building collapse is to tie corporate legal status with their subcontractors’ behavior, making them civilly and criminally responsible for the conditions in factories to which they subcontract work. Otherwise, Disney can make a big stink of pulling out of Bangladesh to make themselves look good without doing anything to help Bangladeshi workers stay alive or ensure that workers in Cambodia, Vietnam, or wherever aren’t subject to the same conditions when no one is looking.

The better details in here came from Fiona Haines, Globalization and Regulatory Character: Regulatory Reform after the Kader Toy Factory Fire

This is the 60th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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