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Above: Huang Mingwei

Did anyone blow up their fingers this weekend? Well, if you did or if you didn’t, know that the fireworks you enjoyed were made by Chinese laborers working in extremely dangerous conditions and then people may have died while making what you were exploding in fun.

On Sept. 22, 2014, Huang Mingwei fed her 2-year-old daughter, put on a peach-colored dress dotted with yellow flowers—her husband’s favorite—and cycled up the road to work.

It was a muggy first day of fall, a morning with nothing in particular to distinguish it from the decade of Mondays Huang had toiled at the Nanyang Export Fireworks Factory in southern China’s Hunan province. By that afternoon, 14 women—her co-workers—lay dead or dying in the rubble of the exploded factory, and Huang would begin a year-and-a-half-long hospital stay to treat severe burns covering 70 percent of her body. Of the 47 people working in the factory that day, only three escaped with no injuries. The rest became casualties of one of China’s most dangerous and ignored industries: the manufacture of the world’s fireworks.

In recent interviews, Huang, now 29, and other former Nanyang factory workers described the workday that nearly killed them and left their lives irreparably damaged.

Huang was in a packing warehouse when, at 3 p.m., someone in the building next-door triggered an explosion by sweeping rice hulls off the floor. The hulls, highly combustible materials used to burst the cardboard shell of a firework and heave its colored stars into the air, are a key ingredient in making fireworks. Chinese safety regulations dictate careful disposal of leftover hulls, but that day they were swept away like harmless debris, the casual meeting of friction with flammables setting off the catastrophe.

A fire engulfed the first building, then ignited a rolling series of explosions that swept through the too-close-set red brick shops like wind. Huang was knocked down by the first blast, got back to her feet, and ran outside, joining a rush of co-workers scrambling toward the hillside behind the factory. As the fire gathered fuel, flames shot skyward, sending shattered glass and bricks hundreds of feet. Building by building, the factory crumpled.

This is all perfectly preventable, as the article notes when it explores the details of both Chinese workplace safety law and the specific conditions inside the factory. But with all the problems in goods coming from China, the fireworks industry has not appeared on the radar of national or international groups who care about these issues. There’s only so much those who are committed can do if more people don’t join them and demand safe products.

Of course the United States could do something about this. It could say that it will not accept fireworks made from factories that do not have a proven safety record. It won’t do that because of course the geopolitics with China are far, far more complicated than the working conditions of a single industry or the working conditions of all industries. But it’s worth noting that shrugging our shoulders over this while we ooh and ah on Independence Day is not an acceptable response. On the other hand, to its credit, the Chinese government actually did something after this, jailing the factory manager and closing all the unsafe factories. This has actually led to a potential fireworks shortage. But the mangled workers are pretty much left out to dry for the rest of their lives because the government won’t pay for any surgeries that aren’t necessary to save their lives.

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  • brugroffil

    Of course the United States could do something about this. It could say that it will not accept fireworks made from factories that do not have a proven safety record.

    From the legal side, what would this look like? Some sort of import ban or something?

    • LeeEsq

      Yes. Congress has the plenary right to regulate commerce with other countries. They can do s complete ban if they want.

  • LeeEsq

    You should also know that there are many “vocational” programs in Chinese schools that have kids making them.

  • LeeEsq

    Child labor in the PRC is usually done in the guise of vocational education.

    • The Temporary Name

      This seems like kind of a broad assertion that deserves some linkage. A Chinese associate (a specialist in Chinese education born in mainland China) didn’t know what to make of this.

      • jpgray

        Here’s something:

        http://www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-tech-factories-turn-to-student-labor-1411572448

        By Eva Dou
        Updated Sept. 24, 2014 3:00 p.m. ET
        33 COMMENTS

        CHONGQING, China—On the outskirts of this southwestern Chinese hub lie the student factories.

        Schools send thousands of teenagers here to put together electronic devices for some of the world’s largest brands. Many students say they are given no choice.

        “I was suddenly told I had to spend the summer making computers or I couldn’t graduate,” said a 16-year-old girl surnamed Xiao who is in a college-preparatory program at a local vocational school. “I feel like I’ve been tricked.”

        • The Temporary Name

          Danke.

        • The Temporary Name

          On the basis of that (subscription I can’t read), this:

          http://www.globalresearch.ca/interns-or-workers-chinas-student-labor-regime/5474874

          • jpgray

            So… I don’t subscribe to the WSJ either, yet I can read it. Huh.

            It’s hard not to be a bit disgusted at a certain fruit iconographic company allowing this and other brutal exploitation to go on when it’s for no greater end result than to stash away $203 billion cash while you wait around for something interesting to do with it.

      • LeeEsq

        I know this from research for my job. Posting from my phone so don’t have sources.

  • jpgray

    Wrong place

  • Denverite

    I’ll have you know that I went over and told the neighbors (bunch of twentysomethings that run a grow operation in the basement) to cut it out with the fireworks three times on Monday, and my wife called the cops when they set off a clearly illegal one. So we’re doing our part, Loomis.

    • Captain Oblivious

      I’m not sure what’s legal in Florida. Probably everything. Because Florida. You see some pretty fancy backyard displays every Fourth.

    • ThrottleJockey

      If you don’t like fireworks you’re lucky you don’t live in Kansas. I went down to KC for a 4th celebration a few years back and from what I can tell nothing is illegal. So cats blowing quarter sticks & half sticks of dynamite. Never seen that before. It was pretty fucking cool.

  • Crusty

    Not trying to be snarky, I was honestly surprised not to see a Jean Pierre-Paul PSA about the dangers of fireworks this year.

    • ASV

      He did one.

      • Crusty

        Thanks. Hadn’t seen it.

  • Aaron Morrow

    It won’t do that because of course the geopolitics with China are far, far more complicated than the working conditions of a single industry or the working conditions of all industries.

    Call me an old fashioned structuralist, but what we need is some sort of United States Trade Representative who can actually deal with labor issues. (There’s nothing that says that free trade agreements can’t be contingent on things that are pro-worker, except tradition.)

    • ThrottleJockey

      Sounds like you want to amend the TPP?

  • awarrens

    One things that’s always confused me…How does this work in regards to fireworks being sold on reservations? Here in western Washington there are literally hundreds of Native run stands selling everything short of TNT. Where are they getting their inventory? Are they directly imported from China to the reservation? That doesn’t sound right…Are they just bought from states with more lax fireworks laws?

  • Captain Oblivious

    Outlawing the damned things entirely except for professional use by licensed pyrotechnicians would not upset me at all.

    Realistically, though, I doubt that importation bans won’t help these particular workers. Fireworks are a YOOOGE deal in many eastern countries. I don’t know the numbers, but I’m willing to bet that the great bulk of the fireworks made in China are sold domestically and in neighboring markets, and that the US banning imports won’t even register on the Chinese GDP.

    I don’t know what to do about labor issues in countries like China and Malaysia and Qatar as long as our own politicians and corporate executives see money to be made by looking the other way. I try not to buy Chinese-made products, but frankly, that’s become impossible.

  • Redwood Rhiadra

    I didn’t even *hear* any fireworks over the holiday, much less see any. They’re banned in my county, and it’s actually enforced.

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