Arsenic and old lies: Chemical plant worker cheated out of compensation

Liu Yugui was a pipeline worker at petro-chemical plant in the northeastern province of Jilin. From time to time, Liu was told to clean out a reaction vessel used in the production of ethylene. On average, it took him around ten days to complete the work, and throughout that time he was not issued with any protective clothing or equipment.

What Liu did not know at the time was that during the cleaning process, he was exposed to the highly toxic catalyst arsenic. Liu was young and fit and brushed off the early signs of arsenic poisoning but he soon got weaker and weaker and in the end nearly died.

That was a decade or so ago. Since then Liu has endured an equally painful ordeal trying to get fair compensation from his employer. In August 2013, he talked to CLB Director Han Dongfang about his work at the ethylene plant, his struggle for compensation and his attempts to get proper medical treatment.

Thinking back, the symptoms appeared soon after I cleaned the reaction vessel for the first time. After coming out of the vessel, I suffered muscle weakness. I was only 20 years old at that time and I used to do bodybuilding. However, soon afterwards, I could not do any sports. I could work, but could not do any physical training.

At first, the symptoms disappeared soon after the cleaning operation. Later, Liu's situation deteriorated and the symptoms remained long after the work was completed.

I had almost every symptom of heart disease including shortness of breath and palpitations. Sometimes my heart beat more than six times per second. Yet, sometimes my heart beat at a very low rate of less than 20 times per minute according to the doctor.

Liu reported his case to his manager who simply "diagnosed" Liu's condition as heart disease, deliberately avoiding any connection to his work. Liu suspected that the manager knew about the dangers of arsenic poisoning because similar cases must have occurred in other countries that used the same reaction vessel technology. Moreover, the failure of the enterprise to provide workers with protective equipment obviously constituted a breach of the law and that was something they would want to hide.

The company did not arrange a medical checkup for Liu after he reported his deteriorating condition. It was only when Liu took the initiative and went to a local hospital himself that his managers directed him to the work-unit’s affiliated hospital.

I asked the doctor what was the cause of my heart disease. But even today he will not say. He did not tell me exactly which substance caused my illness. All he said was that catalysts were complex and he could not really tell the cause.

Obscuring the truth

The work unit hospital refused to admit Liu. He believes this was because the managers at the work unit knew that if he received proper medical care, it could cost them around one million yuan. Instead he was sent to the local occupational disease prevention clinic.

Liu's case eventually came to the attention of the local government. However, this did not make things any easier for him:

The government wanted to shift the culpability to me, alleging I had violated the Law on the Prevention and Treatment of Occupational Disease by passing off an illness caused by my family situation as an occupational disease. I resisted but they ignored me.

Liu was offered a deal in which he would terminate his employment in exchange for a one-off settlement of 75,000 yuan. The agreement absolved the company of any further liability or responsibilities regarding Liu's health, medication, housing, the living costs of his family and future employment. What is more, the so-called compensation was actually largely composed of wages in arrears and medical expenses. Only 30,000 yuan was genuine compensation.

Liu was reluctant to take the deal but he was hospitalized at the time and desperately needed the money to pay his medical bills. He felt that he had no choice but to accept the offer.

I tell you what happened. I did not even have a glimpse of the agreement before signing it. The work unit told me that as soon as I signed the agreement, I would get the 75,000 yuan. At that time, I really had no choice. Accepting the agreement was my only chance to survive. It was human instinct.

By 2009, however, Liu had recovered to a large extent and started to realize that he had in fact been deceived by his employer. There were two main legal issues, he said.

Firstly, According to Article 51 of the 1996 Provisional Measures on Work-related Injury Insurance for Enterprise Employees (企业职工工伤保险试行办法), effective at the time of the incident, any employee working in a potentially hazardous position, like Liu, must have a medical checkup and be issued with a medical report before the termination of their contract. However, from the very beginning, the company and its affiliated hospital was very careful not to put anything in writing that could show the cause of Liu’s illness.

Secondly, Article 10 of the Provisional Measures provides that a trade union representative can apply for compensation on behalf of an injured worker. However, the trade union did not perform this duty. This was not surprising given that the union chair was also the chairman of the board of directors. The dual identity of the union chair was a major factor in rendering the agreement inequitable.

Going to court

Liu started legal proceedings and was confident about his chances of success given that the agreement he had signed was clearly flawed:

A Jilin city official told me that the company thought I would die not long after getting the compensation and that would be the end of matter. To their surprise, I survived and some of the unwanted materials about the occupational poisoning are now available online. The official said, if the company had anticipated the situation today, they would have never given me any documentation.

However, when Liu tried to obtain the diagnostic report and other additional documentation needed for his case, he met with huge resistance.

We tried to obtain my medical history from the occupational disease prevention clinic but we discovered that it had been forged. We complained but the clinic refused to correct it. So we sued the clinic. The High Court refused to hear my case, and the Intermediate Court ruled that my disease was congenital. The medical history even stated that the occupational disease I suffered from originally had been fully cured, which is untrue.

Liu petitioned numerous local, regional and national government institutions but all to no avail. No one was any help and some officials even threatened him. One Party official told Liu:

It was the leaders’ collective stance to distort the real cause of my illness. He said that he knew the head of the Public Security Bureau, and that he could make my life difficult. I recorded that.

Liu thought that with such damning evidence on tape things would move forward. He was wrong. He tried to contact the state media but there was no follow-up. He uploaded the recordings to his micro-blog but no one really paid any attention.

Han Dongfang encouraged him to carry on with his legal battle but Liu saw little value in going to court again.

I tell you what, to start legal proceedings, you would need to get the occupational diagnosis report, which is very time consuming. You would also need to go through procedures like filing a case and trials. I’ve had experience with litigation and I really could not stand it again.

You can tell there are many procedures. How much time would it take to go through all those even if everything goes smoothly? Worse still, they have the government on their side. How about us? We have right on our side, in theory we could win, but the reality is very different. That’s the truth.


This interview with Liu Yugui was first broadcast on Radio Free Asia's 劳工通讯 in six episodes in late August and early September 2013.

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