Dying for a drink: Construction workers pay the price for Kweichow Moutai’s success

By Jennifer Cheung

Kweichow Moutai is one of the best known and most successful luxury brands in China. It has seen spectacular growth over the last decade and has built numerous new plants and facilities around its main distillery near Zunyi in order to keep up with demand.

But in its rush to expand, Kweichow Moutai has failed to protect the health of the workers who built those new facilities. Hundreds of workers employed on the company’s construction sites have contracted the deadly lung disease pneumoconiosis and dozens have already died, according those familiar with the case.

Moreover, many of the ill and dying have not received any compensation because they did not have work-related injury insurance and their employer refused to accept liability or simply could not be found.

Yang Nengfen is a 34-year-old mother of two. She first went to work as a driller at the company’s construction site with her husband in the late 1990s. The drilling work created vast clouds of mineral dust but no protective measures were taken by the workers or the employer.

“No one was aware of the disease at that time,” explained Yang’s brother, who also worked at the construction site with his sister but luckily didn’t work there long enough to contract the disease.

It was only in 2008, when Yang’s husband started to cough heavily and had difficulty breathing, that they went to a local hospital for a check-up. He was diagnosed with terminal-stage pneumoconiosis and died in 2010, the same year that Yang was also diagnosed with late stage pneumoconiosis.

Following her husband’s death, Yang had to raise two school-age sons basically on her own, supported only by her elderly mother. When she was hospitalized because of pneumoconiosis, one of her sons dropped out of school in order to take care of her.

Most victims have been unable to get any compensation for their medical bills because of the informal and multi-layered system of hiring workers in the construction industry in China.

“We did odd construction work when we were not busy with farming and we were recruited by foreman,” said Yang’s brother. “We didn’t have employment contracts, and when my sister was diagnosed with pneumoconiosis, we didn’t know who should pay the bill.”

In addition, many of the foremen who were responsible for recruiting farmers to work on the Kweichow Moutai construction sites have also contracted pneumoconiosis. They are now in the impossible situation of having to pay their own bills while their fellow workers suffer.

Li Mingwei started recruiting rural labourers to work at a Kweichow Moutai construction site in 2007. He did piling work and was constantly exposed to dust. He was diagnosed with pneumoconiosis in 2012.

“When I got this project from the contractor, he didn’t mention anything to me about the risk of contracting pneumoconiosis,” the 39-year-old foreman said. “We were unaware of the potential hazards at that time, and didn’t wear any kind of anti-dust masks. Then in 2010, I started to feel tightness in my chest and had difficulty breathing. Now my medical bill is 7,000 yuan per month.”

Although more and more workers in the region are being diagnosed with or show symptoms of pneumoconiosis, the local authorities are doing little to help.

After Yang Nengfen’s case was reported on national television last year, the local authorities announced a province-wide campaign to improve prevention measures in the construction industry. And in April this year, the mayor of Zunyi inspected the Kweichow Moutai construction sites and reportedly spoke highly of the design and environmental protection measures in place.

However, according to those working with pneumoconiosis victims in the region, conditions have not improved significantly despite the increased inspections. The local authorities in Zunyi and officials at Kweichow Moutai both did not respond to CLB’s inquiries.

Labour rights lawyers are now working with those labourers who were diagnosed with pneumoconiosis after working at the company’s construction sites. Although Kweichow Moutai is not the workers’ direct employer, the lawyers said they are confident that the company can be held accountable.

China Labour Bulletin Director Han Dongfang pointed out that:

These workers got sick building Kweichow Moutai’s factories. As a leading Chinese company and a major international brand, it should not hide from its responsibility under the law to both protect workers from occupational disease and to compensate those who get pneumoconiosis.

In CLB’s research report Time to Pay the Bill: China’s obligation to the victims of pneumoconiosis, we argue further that while employers do have a clear responsibility to protect the health of their employees, the Chinese state has the ultimate responsibility to make sure all the estimated six million victims of this terrible disease receive the medical help and economic compensation they are entitled to.

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