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Chinese Factories Defy Sandblasting Ban

A new report reveals that sandblasting is still widespread in China despite being banned by most Western apparel companies because of its link to silicosis, a potentially lethal pulmonary disease.

The report, “Breathless for Blue Jeans: Health Hazards in China’s Denim Factories,” investigated six denim factories in the province of Guandong, the site of nearly half of the world’s blue jean production. In defiance of assurances three years ago that the practice of sandblasting was abandoned, Chinese factories continue to employ it in both manual and machine processes.

Practiced since the 1870’s, sandblasting involves firing highly-pressurized streams of sand at denim to create a “distressed” look now popular among consumers. Problematically, workers involved in sandblasting potentially inhale minuscule particles of silica, which can lead to silicosis. They can also be exposed to a range of other dangerous techniques including dye application, polishing, and the spraying of chemicals such as potassium permanganate, often without access to adequate protective gear or appropriate training. Most companies and several governments have banned the process entirely.

Still, extensive interviews conducted with factory workers revealed the fecklessness of the existing bans. According to one worker, the conditions are dire: “In our department, it’s full of jeans and black dust. The temperature on the shop floor is high. It’s difficult to breathe. I feel like I’m working in a coal mine.”

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And a slew of regulations passed by the Chinese government outlawing sandblasting have proven ineffective. Monina Wong, IHLO coordinator, complained: “While China has passed many occupational health and safety regulations, their implementation is very poor. It takes years for workers to be properly diagnosed, and many die before they even make it to the examination stage.”

According to Wong, even early detection of silicosis is of little use to the workers given their lack of labor protections: “Even if they manage to get diagnosed, it is difficult for workers to prove their employment relationship with the factory, as very few have official contracts. Brands should ensure their suppliers provide diagnosis, treatment and compensation for workers suffering from silicosis or other related diseases.”

The factories in question have been linked to the supply chains of H&M and Levi Strauss and Co., both of which announced their own ban on sandblasting last September.

Activists are now demanding a coordinated effort by governments to establish a global ban on sandblasting. Dominique Miller, a representative of the Clean Clothes Campaign and the primary author of the report, said “Only a complete ban on sandblasting will end this deadly practice. Despite brands’ promises to the contrary, this lethal method continues to be used.”

The report was jointly issued by a consortium of agencies including the IHLO, the Hong Kong office of the International Trade Union Movement; Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior; the Clean Clothes Campaign;  and War on Want, a women’s rights group.