BEIJING — A fire breaks out in a Chinese factory, and panicked workers discover one exit after another is locked. That describes not only the poultry plant fire that killed 119 people Monday, but a toy-factory blaze that left 87 workers dead 20 years earlier.
The similarities between the two worst factory fires in China's history suggest that little has changed for industrial workers even as the country has transformed its economy.
The bolted doors, clearly a violation of Chinese law, are emblematic of the often callous approach to worker safety in China that leads to frequent industrial disasters and an annual death toll in the tens of thousands.
While the country's increasingly sophisticated economy has surged into second place globally behind the United States, industrial safety conditions often more closely resemble those in struggling impoverished nations.
"Throughout China's modern economic development, there has really been very little consideration for the rights and interests of the workers," said Li Qiang, executive director of New York-based China Labor Watch.
Inspectors on Tuesday were combing through the charred wreckage of the Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Co.'s processing plant, where fire raced through a chicken processing room in just three minutes on Monday morning.
It was one of China's worst recent industrial disasters. The death toll is the highest since a September 2008 mining cave-in that claimed 281 lives, and closely followed two other industrial blazes in the past five days that killed two workers.
Workers quoted in state media said exits were locked to secure the property and to keep them from stepping outside for breaks, despite the requirement in Article 24 of China's emergency response law requiring that safety exits be kept open and clearly marked. China's labor law also mandates safe working conditions.
Only a single door was open to permit escape. Workers trampled each other in the dark trying to get out.
The conditions closely resembled those at the Zhili toy factory in the southern city of Shenzhen where 87 young workers were killed in 1993. Exits at the toy factory also were locked, allegedly to prevent theft.
The Zhili factory's owners allegedly bribed inspectors to overlook safety violations, including putting the workers' dormitory, factory and warehouse all in the same building. The owners served brief prison sentences.
Initial reports said the poultry plant fire appeared to have been sparked by an explosion caused by leaking ammonia, a chemical kept pressurized as part of the cooling system in meat processing plants. The fire broke out during a shift change when about 350 workers were at the plant.
The plant's owner and managers have been taken into police custody while a special Cabinet investigation team looks into the causes of the disaster.