Workplace accident illustrates gap between the law on paper and in the factory

When Honghua Yuansen Printing and Dyeing Co Ltd hired Ren Zhengqing in February this year to load and unload goods at its factory in Guanghan in rural Sichuan, it never bothered to give him an employment contract, as required by law, or provide him with social insurance (including work-related injury insurance), as required by law.

That proved to be a costly mistake both for the company and for Ren when less than three months into his new job, Ren fell from the truck he was unloading and suffered a severe neck injury. The company agreed to pay Ren’s initial hospital and medical treatment costs which came to around 80,000 yuan but once he was out of hospital, the company refused to accept any further liability even though Ren still required constant care.

Ren’s son took up the case and in October 2014 he talked to China Labour Bulletin Director Han Dongfang about his family’s continued efforts to get compensation for their father. He described to Han how on 16 April, 2014, Ren fell from a truck and landed so badly that he suffered a comminuted fracture of the neck. In other words the bones in his neck were crushed and splintered:

Maybe it was because they were in a hurry, and he was on his own, anyway, he was unloading a big truck, when he fell from the top of the vehicle and hit part of the vehicle on his way down before striking the ground, causing crushing injuries to his shoulder and neck.

An ambulance was called but the local hospital in Guanghan refused to admit Ren because his injuries were too severe.  He was taken instead to the specialist West China Hospital about 50 kilometres away in the provincial capital Chengdu. Once his condition stabilized, he was moved back to the Guanghan Orthopaedic Hospital. After five months, Ren was informed that he had recovered to the point where it was feasible for him to go home to complete his recuperation.

It was at this point that the company decided to cut off financial support even though as Ren’s son pointed out: “He cannot turn his head. He is not able to look after himself; he needs someone to look after him.”

The company told the family to enrol in the government’s New Rural Cooperative Insurance scheme if they wanted their father’s additional medical expenses to be covered in the future.

Even though the company agreed that it had a de facto employment relationship with Ren and that the accident happened at the workplace and on work time, it refused to apply for verification of work-related injury as it was required to do so by law. Moreover, it refused to cooperate with the family when they attempted to apply on Ren’s behalf:

They said I needed testimony from a colleague at work ... and a reference number for the employment contract. But all I have is payroll records. We are now no longer able to get into the factory. When I went there to try to get hold of some evidence from a work colleague of my father, I was blocked by security guys who would not let me in.

The local authorities too proved to be more of a hindrance than help.

We approached a lot of people including the social security people but they insisted that the documentation was incomplete. We got hung up on that, and that is where we remain now. .. I ran around from office to office, but they just do not care. You get a lot of high-sounding words and a list of materials to prepare, but nobody takes your side. They only got involved themselves after I made a stink, complaining to the provincial-level authorities. For ordinary people, it is very hard to uphold human rights, especially in these smaller towns.

Despite the obstacles thrown up by the company and local government officials, Ren’s son did manage to get some small concessions. The company resumed salary payments but only at the local minimum wage of just over 1,100 yuan a month. The family refused to sign the agreement proposed by the company and held out for Ren’s full wage of more than 2,000 yuan a month. Ultimately, however, Ren’s son said, they wanted to get a one-time compensation payment from the company to cover everything.

Han Dongfang suggested that this might prove difficult, especially since they did not yet have a verification of work-related injury. Moreover, he said, a one-time payment would not necessarily be advantageous in the long run:

Based on my many years of experience in industrial injuries and from discussion with victims’ colleagues and families… if your money is spent for other reasons, or you need subsequent treatment, it will be very difficult to judge who is ultimately responsible.

Ren’s son indicated that the company had not learned any lessons from his father’s case and was still not providing workers with employment contracts or social insurance. Han noted that the company seemed to regard workers as uneducated simpletons with no legal knowledge or awareness.

They thought they could swindle the workers, but in swindling the workers, they ended up swindling themselves.

Han Dongfang’s interview with Ren Zhengqing’s son was first broadcast on Radio Free Asia's 劳工通讯 in four episodes in October 2014.

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