EXCLUSIVE: Company Chaired by £1million Garden Bridge Donor linked to cadmium poisoning of workers in China

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thePipeLine can reveal that, the Gold Peak Group,  the company of which newly identified Garden Bridge donor, Hong Kong based tycoon Mr Victor Lo  is the chairman and chief executive, has been linked to the cadmium poisoning of hundreds of workers in factories in China on Mr Lo’s watch.  Once used extensively in rechargeable batteries powering consumer goods from games consoles to cameras, Cadmium is a highly toxic heavy metal, and excessive exposure, particularly to cadmium dust, has been linked to kidney failure, to chronic  severe pain in bones and even to cancer in humans.  Indeed, so toxic is the metal that cadmium is one of ten substances the use of which are heavily restricted under the European Union Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive 2002/95/EC, (RoHS 1), which came into force on 1 July 2006.  The EU also restricts the amount of cadmium which can be used in most batteries to twenty parts per million, while health and safety directives require that a respirator is worn by anyone working with the material.  

However, in the 1980’s cheap, mass produced, rechargeable nickel-cadmium [ni-cad] batteries were at the heart of the boom in portable consumer electronics such as the famous Sony Walkman.  It was also the start of the first wave of Globalisation with the tiger economies of the Far East, with their promise of  reduced costs and plentiful labour, stepping up to replace the traditional northern hemisphere manufacturers, and like the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, there would be human casualties in the rush for volume production and profit.

In the 1990’s much of the battery production for the Western World was shifted towards the emerging economic dragon of China, which, alongside other advantages, also happened to be less squeamish about handling the toxic waste products created during the manufacturing process and one of the largest manufacturers of nickel cadmium batteries was Gold Peak Batteries, [a Singapore-listed unit of the Hong Kong-listed Gold Peak Industries (Holdings) Ltd.] with a major plant in the city of Huizhou, in southeast Guangdong Province.  The city of some 4.6 million people benefited greatly from Chinas economic miracle which came with the reforms of the late 1980’s and the new venture was a great success.  According to a 2008 article in the Wall Street Journal , by the early 2000’s Gold Peak’s clients are reported to have included the Energizer Battery Co., Proctor & Gamble Co.’s Duracell brand , toy makers Hasbro and Mattel, as well as supermarket Wal-Mart, the parent company of the UK’s Asda, and Toys “R” Us.  However, it is alleged that the price of this economic success was the health of many of the company workers who were exposed to a toxic environment where they inhaled cadmium dust, nicknamed “red dust”, generated during the manufacturing process.

Although China’s factories are legally obliged to follow World Health Organisation safety rules regarding toxic materials, by 2003 there was increasing concern among the largely female workforce on the shop floor at Huizhou about the possible negative health implications of working at the plant.  As a result a number of workers, who were already exhibiting the symptoms of illness, chose to pay for private tests which revealed elevated levels of cadmium in their blood.  This led to a strike demanding that the company pay for tests for all of its workers.

This Gold Peak conceded and after the first batch of company tests in 2004 177 workers were found to have levels of cadmium above China’s safe-exposure limit, dozens were hospitalised and two were found to be so severely effected by cadmium that they qualified as poisoned.  Later it was also reported that some children born to workers at the plant also had higher than normal levels of cadmium.

Faced with this the company then offered a one off exit package to the approximately 900 workers who chose to leave, which it said averaged $2100 per person.  An amount that workers claimed failed to even cover their medical bills.  Since then Gold Peak has been dogged by accusations that compensation has been too little, too late, that workers campaigning on the cadmium issue were victimised by management, were tricked into leaving and thus signing away further rights to payments and compensation, and even that the human rights of some workers were violated.

The Wall Street Journal reported that while on the way to be interviewed by its journalists one victim of the cadmium poisoning, Ms Wang Fengping, was picked up by Huizhou Police along with three colleagues and detained in a Police station for some thirteen hours.  A witness reported that the party were told that they could face treason charges if they spoke to the media.   The local government denied this incident occurred.

The company do admit that poisonings did take place, as Henry Leung, the then COO of the Gold Peak Batteries Huizhou factory told the Wall Street Journal,

“We knew it was dangerous, but we thought that if it was handled in a reasonable manner you should be OK,” seemingly pointing out that health and safety failures might have been more likely because “This is all new for China.”

He added,

“We want to take care of workers,” but some he alleged, “…want to be recorded as poisoned, so people will keep giving them compensation,”

The company also argued that it had paid out millions of dollars Hong Kong, in compensation and to cover medical treatment.  However, the workforce, and those campaigning on their behalf, denied this was adequate.

In September 2007 the Hong Kong based workers rights group, Globalization Monitor wrote an open letter to Mr Lo in his role as Chair of Gold Peak Industries stating a number of allegations, primarily,

“Gold Peak Industries (Holdings) Hong Kong owns GP batteries in China and as such has direct responsibility. As a result of GPs long-term negligence in production safety, many workers were found to have been poisoned through their work at GP:

  • 21 workers from three mainland GP plants and three workers from GP plants in Hong Kong are affected by cadmium poisoning.
  • Several hundred workers from the mainland and 21 workers from Hong Kong are still found to have excessive cadmium levels and have been placed under observation.”

 

Globalization Monitor also commented that in its view,

“The way Mr. Victor Lo and his company have treated their workers shows that GP is severely lacking in minimal corporate social responsibility.”

 

Finally, as of June 2016, Gold Peak Industries [Holdings] Ltd retained a 64.7% shareholding in  GP Batteries International Limited.

 

As a result of the questions raised by this material, which is all available in the public domain, thePipeLine has contacted the Garden Bridge Trust by text and e-mail to ask,

  1.  If accepting the donation from the Chairman of a company which is alleged to have polluted a work environment with toxic heavy metals and then been at the very least slow in compensating the victims of that pollution, is in keeping with the green credentials of the Garden Bridge project and,
  2.  if as a result the Garden Bridge Trust will be returning Mr Lo’s donation of £1 million?

Up to the time of publication no response has been received.

We thought it kinder not to ask why the Garden Bridge media team allowed the Standard to lead its latest coverage of the Garden Bridge with Mr Lo’s donation when it is so easy to check the background to Gold Peak Industries and find the evidence outlined above which, many campaigners against the Garden Bridge will argue, launches another toxic torpedo into the much vaunted green credentials of the Garden Bridge project.

 

The struggle of the Gold Peak  workers for compensation is shown in the documentary “Red Dust” of which this is a trailer