China shoe factory
Employees apply glue to the bottom part of shoes along a production line at a factory in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province on Oct. 11, 2013. Reuters/William Hong

Thousands of shoe factories in China were shut down as a result of an extensive crackdown on unsafe work conditions, prompting angry protests from shoe companies and workers. A series of safety inspections at factories in coastal Zhejiang province led to the closure of more than 4,500 shoe factories.

Local officials performed inspections of factories all over the city of Wenling, known for its shoe industry, and found substandard safety conditions in thousands of the facilities. The inspections were prompted by an accident earlier in the year that took the lives of 16 workers when a fire broke out in a factory.

Of some 6,000 shoemaking facilities inspected, more than 65 percent were cited for violations of safety standards, including inadequate firefighting equipment, unlicensed business activities, and building code violations. Factories and workshops will be given a chance to reopen if the safety codes are met upon reinspection.

The closures have incited protests among scores of angry owners and workers. According to local financial news outlet, business owners are calling the sudden government action “arbitrary” and “heavy-handed.” Thousands of protesters made their way to the city’s government offices to protest the closures, which they claim will drive them out of business and deal a tough blow to the local economy.

“A series of industries related to shoemaking in the city have been hugely affected by the scrutiny,” a man named Fan, who owns the Zhubaoli Footwear Company, told the South China Morning Post. “Lots of migrant workers have left the city for better jobs elsewhere.” The exodus of workers, Fan says, has harshly affected other local businesses, too: “Recently, you hardly even see rice or vegetable vendors.”

Fan, whose business was closed a result of the inspections, said his company won’t be able to operate for at least a month or two. In the meantime, his workers will be moving to a newer rented facility, which he hopes will receive government approval. Others, however, are less certain about their fate.

“Officials are very picky… If you fail the inspection this time for even a tiny flaw, you’ll have to wait at least a fortnight for another inspection,” another manager in Wenling said. “This didn’t even give us any time to adapt to the changes,” he added.