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.