China’s dominance of shipping container manufacturing: the cost to workers’ health

China’s dominance of shipping container manufacturing: the cost to workers’ health

Globalization Monitor

February 2011


As of 2008, almost 97 in every 100 shipping containers in the world were manufactured in China. Chinese container manufacturers have made the most of their proximity to massive export production zones and abundant supply of cheap labor, and combined these with ongoing product innovation to comprehensively out-compete their rivals and dominate the industry over the course of the last 15 years. At the peak of global shipping volumes before the 2008 financial crisis, China’s manufactured over 4 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) in standard dry cargo containers in a single year. [1] The Global Financial Crisis more or less halted new container construction from October 2008 to late 2009, but production has been picking up sharply in 2010. Towards the end of the year, factories could not keep up with demand from shipping liners and container leasing companies.

Yet behind the impressive commercial performance of Chinese container manufacturers is a workforce of tens of thousands of workers who make these containers. China’s competitive box prices are enabled not only by geographic advantage and product innovation, but by how little money is invested in ensuring safe factory facilities in an industry where production processes are inherently hazardous. Occupational injuries and diseases are widespread, most commonly dust-induced lung diseases, chemical poisoning and hearing loss.

This report will first outline how container production has become concentrated in China over the past 15 years, and introduce the largest container manufacturing companies. We will then consider the costs of container manufacturing – not in terms of dollars or Yuan, but in terms of the health and safety of Chinese production line workers. The report will conclude with accounts of workers who have acquired occupational injuries and diseases, and how employers have thwarted their diagnosis, treatment and compensation.

[1] Twenty-foot equivalent units or TEU is the standard unit of measurement for shipping container production.

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