China.org.cn: Firms 'ducking occupational disease claims': Report

China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.

By John Sexton
China.org.cn, April 26, 2010

Complicated regulations and bribes paid by business owners to corrupt officials are preventing Chinese workers suffering from occupational diseases from receiving rightful compensation, a new report says.

The Hard Road: Seeking justice for victims of pneumoconiosis in China by Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin (CLB) says workers may have to negotiate their way through as many as 22 stages of a complex legal process before receiving a payout.

The lung disease pneumoconiosis accounts for 90 percent occupational disease cases in China, according to CLB. Workers in the mining, quarrying, construction and jewelry industries are particularly likely to contract the disease, which can take years to show symptoms but is usually fatal.

The report says companies use their local economic clout, and in many cases resort to outright bribery, to persuade local government and hospital officials to disallow occupational disease claims, and discourage workers from pursuing compensation.

"If an employer is an influential person in the locality, you basically have no chance of getting compensation," said Jeff Crothall of China Labor Bulletin, speaking at a press conference in Beijing today.

Firms also use all sorts of excuses to dismiss workers who show signs of developing the disease, Crothall said. They range from accusing them of inciting strikes to moving them to menial, low-paid jobs. In some cases, the firm will pay out minimal compensation to avoid larger, long-term liabilities.

Crothall said official figures put the number of pneumoconiosis sufferers at around 600,000 but that if undiagnosed cases are added, the real figure is likely to be well over one million. As many as 10,000 former coal miners die of the disease every year, he said.

The plight of pneumoconiosis sufferers was put in the spotlight last summer by the dramatic case of 29-year-old Zhang Haichao from Henan Province. After a medical center near his former factory wrongly diagnosed him with tuberculosis, Zhang voluntarily underwent chest surgery to prove he had pneumoconiosis. In the public outcry that followed, Zhang's former employer agreed to a payout of 615,000 yuan (US$90,000).

"It seems remarkable that any medical professional could have mistaken pneumoconiosis, a disease caused by dust inhalation, with tuberculosis, one caused by a bacterial infection," the report says.

Successful claims made by 180 ex-construction workers who traveled together in 2009 to lobby former employers in Shenzhen were an exception, Crothall says. By staging public demonstrations the workers were able to pressure the government into arranging substantial compensation payouts, but attempts by others to repeat their success failed because "local governments have limited tolerance of social disorder," said Crothall.

The report calls on the government to simplify the procedures for claiming compensation for occupational diseases, and says local governments in particular should take a more proactive approach to workplace health and safety.

It also says the All China Federation of Trades Unions should establish workers health and safety committees in high-dust industries and should be more active in providing assistance to victims of occupational diseases.

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