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Toxic Glue Puts Chinese Migrant Workers in Sticky Situation


If you thought toxic glue was a “first world problem” whose only victims were women engaged to marry George Costanza, think again. A major scandal brewing in China's southern city of Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton) has shone the spotlight on a vast, unlicensed leather-goods trade that exposes tens of thousands of migrant worker employees to high levels of dangerous chemicals.

The numbers are startling: since last November, 38 migrant workers have been hospitalized, 4 of whom have since died. Guangzhou authorities acting via a newly set-up special task force have suspended around 1,000 companies for using harmful glues in their manufacturing processes.

In addition, 31 enterprises have had their facilities sealed and 15 have been shut down altogether. Considering 2,873 companies have been officially investigated by authorities so far, anyone would agree something's very sticky in Guangzhou indeed.

Most of those hospitalized were migrants from China's mainly poor, rural interior who worked for leather, shoe and bag companies in Guangzhou's Baiyun and Liwan districts. Migrant workers are often paid very little and are forced to toil long hours in very poor working conditions. Competition for jobs is fierce – it's estimated that around 31 million migrant workers are currently employed in Guangdong province bordering Hong Kong.

According to the safety supervision bureau of the Guangzhou municipal government, the 38 original hospitalized workers all suffered acute dichloroethane poisoning. Dichloroethane is one of the components of industrial glue but the cheap, poor quality glue used by cut-rate sweat shops often lacks the essential binders that lock the chemical inside the glue.

“The patients were diagnosed as suffering from acute dichloroethane poisoning,” stated Liu Yimin, vice-president of Guangzhou No 12 People's Hospital, “with some of the patients' cerebral and central nervous systems suffering damage.”

Volatile dichloroethane emanating from the glue combined with cold winter weather that caused factory owners to shut windows contributed to a toxic atmosphere within the shops. When inhaled, dichloroethane can cause headaches, weakness and incontinence. Worst of all, dichloroethane is a known carcinogen.

23-year-old Chen Xilong, pictured at top, is one of the hospitalized workers. Chen left his home in Central China's Hunan province to work in a small, unlicensed leather shop in Guangzhou. Though he knew the glue used at his workplace could be harmful to health, Chen chose to stay as long as he possibly could, stating “I have no choice, unless I quit my job.” (via Xinhuanet and China.org.cn)