Tianjin Explosion Highlights Profits Over People

The toxic dust is still settling in Tianjin, China. At the time of writing, at least 123 people have lost their lives, 70 are missing, and more than 700 are injured. It will take lengthy investigations to discover what exactly happened.

What do we know? A shipment of explosives detonated in a warehouse owned by Ruihai Logistics, a company that specializes in handling dangerous and toxic chemicals, including sodium cyanide, toluene diisocyanate and calcium carbide, all of which pose direct threats to human health on contact. The images emerging convey apocalyptic scenes, and the double explosions drew attention from satellites orbiting the Earth’s atmosphere.

Greenpeace calls Tianjin “the tip of the iceberg… What lies beneath the surface is years of negligence in regards to hazardous chemicals policies and their implementation.” Over the years Greenpeace has campaigned for a toxic-free future, a future without chemicals spilling in to our rivers from textile factories, or non-recyclable electronic products creating mountains of e-waste.

The gravity of the incident in Tianjin may serve to highlight the use of dangerous chemicals throughout Chinese factories. Last year (2014), nearly 70,000 people died while working with toxic chemicals in China. This amounts to a fifth of all occupational accidents globally, as measured by the International Labor Organization. In addition, chemicals used in factories have caused employees to be poisoned, and have led to an increase number of workers developing cancers, or becoming infertile.

The past 15 years has seen a rapid growth in China’s chemicals industry. But, certain producers are known to cut corners, including by constructing plants and commencing production even before a project has been approved. Indeed, Ruihai Logistics operated in Tianjin for months without a licence, and the regulator (who was also, incidentally, the previous Vice Mayor of Tianjin) enabled them to get away with it.

The severity of the Tianjin explosion should be a wake-up call. Regulations forcing corporations to safeguard their employees and protect the environment must be bought into law and then “implemented strictly and effectively,” say Greenpeace. They warn that the failure to do so will result in continuing accidents.

In China, some regulations for workplace safety and chemical management exist. However, they are seldom complied with, and there is tacit acceptance of this non-compliance by State officials. Companies who profit from goods produced cheaply in dangerous conditions throughout countries such as China, are largely based in the Global North. Often, these companies will promote market, rather than regulatory solutions.

Thatcher and Reagan influenced lobbyists continue to propel the idea that “regulation” is a dirty word; it reduces competitiveness, traps corporate capital in a bureaucratic compliance maze – or worse, in responding to enforcement notices and threats of litigation. The idea that regulatory frameworks would demand basic decency for labor standards and practices, while also protecting the environment, is deemed unimportant at best – and mostly, regulations are perceived as clear obstacles to profit.

Regulation ring-fences valuable funds which companies would otherwise spend on innovation, shout the free-marketers. Besides, most corporations are sensible enough; they do the right thing. Don’t they? State enforced regulations just hold them back. Look, the best corporations voluntarily obtain fancy green accreditation proving that they have appropriate administrative procedures to manage waste!

While examples such as Tianjin, as well as lessons from the 2007 and 2008 financial crisis, clearly reveal the perilous risks that corporations and banks will take when left alone and free from regulation, the dogma that free market solutions to economic, social, labor and environmental problems are preferable to regulatory frameworks remains intact. In fact, new trade agreements are being negotiated to entrench this view.

In China, a combination of lack of effective regulation – and a lack of State enforcement of existing regulation – results in regular workplace accidents. Companies who profit from cheap labor in China, simultaneously create complicated webs of parent-subsidiary / contractor relationships to avoid accountability, and generously donate to politicians who often keep regulatory frameworks at bay, or turn a blind eye to non-compliance of regulations already in place.

Initiatives such as the ElectronicsWatch and Workers’ Rights Consortium try to encourage purchasers to demand better workplace conditions and environmental management. The initiatives target specific purchasers based in the Global North, such as universities and local authorities, and work with them to encourage better workplace conditions and environmental management in garment factories, and factories producing electronic products. Both industries rely heavily on chemical materials. Some of these chemicals are carcinogenic and lethal in large and concentrated doses.

To its credit, China has detained top executives of Ruihai Logistics as it investigates the Tianjin warehouse blasts. China is reportedly also investigating the Director of the country’s Work Safety Agency, Yang Dongliang, who was also Tianjin’s Vice Mayor until 2012 – for failing to protect people from corporate cost-cutting and profit making motivated negligence. The enforced implementation of regulations to protect labor standards and the environment may have prevented this month’s tragic explosions in Tianjin.