Law, Politics, The Economy

John Fabian Witt asks, Can China protect its workers?

China and other developing Asian economies are experiencing an industrial accident crisis of world-historical proportions. Official sources report 14,675 industrial-accident deaths in China last year, but statistics on workplace accidents are notoriously unreliable, and some observers suggest that the number may be closer to 120,000.

… Conditions may well get worse before they get better. Even though China instituted new initiatives in industrial safety at the beginning of last year, official estimates indicate that industrial accident deaths increased by almost 10 percent last year.

Why is China so much more dangerous a place to work than the United States? Some of it is, of course, because our most dangerous jobs have been shipped to China, but that is only part of the story.

… the deeper historical reasons for improved workplace safety lie in an array of legal institutions developed by workers, employers, lawyers and lawmakers at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. American workers’ organizations, for example, developed insurance benefits for their members and sought to exercise collective control to improve workplace safety. American lawyers developed modern accident law that created remedies against negligent employers.

Most importantly, drawing on reforms first implemented in Germany, England, and France, workers’ compensation statutes provided compensation for injured workers and created powerful incentives for employers to reduce accident tolls. In the 1910s, American workplace injuries began to fall in virtually every industry, except coal mining …