Government vows to protect workers as protests over pneumoconiosis grow

All workers employed in industries with a high risk of occupational disease will be covered by work-related injury insurance within the next three years under a new government program announced today.

The new initiative comes as hundreds of migrant workers with pneumoconiosis, China’s most prevalent occupational disease, continue to stage collective protests across the country demanding recognition of their rights.

Most recently, 135 migrant workers travelled to Haikou, the provincial capital of Hainan, to demand medical checks that would confirm their occupational disease contracted while working in Hainan. Other workers and family members were forcibly removed from Beijing when they tried to petition the authorities there in October and November. Protests also occurred in Henan, Jiangxi, Shaanxi and most notably in Shenzhen when migrant workers from Hunan staged a series of demonstrations and petitions. See CLB’s Strike Map for more details.

Some of the protests resulted in compensation deals while others ended in repression. However, the combined pressure of workers’ collective action, highlighted by citizen journalists and activists, seems to have finally forced the Chinese government to take pneumoconiosis seriously and implement concrete measures to protect workers.

A joint-notice from the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and the National Health Commission stated that workers in industries with a higher risk of mineral dust inhalation such as mining, metallurgy and building materials would be the focus of a three-year program to assess risks, expand work-related injury insurance and enhance preventative measures.

Under the program, high-risk enterprises should ensure that workers are properly equipped and trained and undergo regular health checks. The notice also calls on designated occupational disease clinics to conduct diagnoses in a timely manner and for those workers who have been diagnosed with pneumoconiosis to be treated and compensated according to the law. In addition, the government will set up a national database on high-risk industries and at-risk employees that could be of benefit to workers seeking justice.

While, the Chinese government should be commended for initiating a comprehensive plan to combat pneumoconiosis, it has to be stressed that the authorities have long been aware of the terrible cost of the disease for millions of workers and their families over the last two decades. Up until now, the national government has relied on local governments to deal with the issue but as CLB pointed out in our report Time to Pay the Bill: China’s obligation to the victims of pneumoconiosis, the financial burden has largely fallen on poor rural county governments who can’t afford to pay rather than the wealthy cities where the workers were employed.

It is essential that the government’s new initiative takes this disparity into account and creates a mechanism to ensure that migrant workers do actually receive the compensation they are owed and the medical treatment they deserve regardless of where they live.

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