Dust fills the air as thousands of workers, most of them from poverty-stricken provinces, are hunched over their workbenches in foreign invested factories in southern China polishing semi-precious stones which will be sold in luxury shops overseas.
Breathing in the suspended dust from the semi-precious stones can lead to fatal lung diseases. Are the workers provided with any protective equipment or is there any ventilation in the factory? In some cases they are not even provided with a face-mask.
At a national conference on occupational disease in Beijing on 16 March, Jiang Zuojun, China's Vice-Minister of Health, reported that more than 440,000 people are suffering from pneumoconiosis in China and that about 10,000 new cases emerge every year. Admitting that the real figures could be much higher, he added that more than 140,000 people had died of pneumoconiosis in China since the 1950s and that the number of people afflicted with the disease over the same period exceeded 580,000. Jiang concluded: "The high frequency of occupational diseases in some places is partly due to poor implementation of occupational health and safety standards and lack of protective equipment."
Over the past few years, about 60 workers in several Hong Kong-invested jewellery factories in Huizhou and Shenzhen have been found to be in the late stages of pneumoconiosis or silicosis (a form of pneumoconiosis), which is also known as "lung dust disease" in China. Many of them have lost the ability to work and the disease is advancing relentlessly. It is incurable. Two of the workers have died and the others have been unable to work and their health conditions are getting worse, according to the Hong Kong-based labour group Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee (HKCIC).
As the following cases vividly highlight, many factory owners are turning a blind eye to occupational health and safety laws in China and their workers' health is being sacrificed on the altar of quick profits.
Afflicted Workers Health Inexorably Declines – Employers Flout the Labour Law with Impunity
China Labour Bulletin recently interviewed several workers from three of the offending factories in southern China: Lucky Gem & Jewellery Co. Ltd, Ko Ngar Gems Factory Ltd and Perfect Gem & Pearl Manufacturing Company.
Li Weizhong, 42, from Liangping County in Chongqing Municipality, and Yang Renping, 40, from Guang'an City, Sichuan Province, both joined the workforce of the Lucky Jewellery factory in Longgang district of Shenzhen Municipality in late 1991. The factory management did not provide them with any introductory occupational health programme or health checks. They also failed to provide any work contracts or social security provision.
Both are now suffering from pneumoconiosis. They said they had consulted doctors in Guangdong and were told that they could die of the illness in a few short years. "Walking up the staircase is a nightmare to me. Even a few steps can make me pant for breath and my chest is very painful," Li told CLB. Yang added that he had to be careful not to catch flu, since it would worsen his condition.
Both Li and Yang left the factory before it was relocated from Shenzhen to Huizhou in 1997. In order to avoid paying any compensation, the company later denied that Li and Yang had worked for the factory in Shenzhen.
Although the Lucky Jewellery workers' plight has received international attention over the last few years – for example, reports have appeared in the New York Times, the Financial Times and the South China Morning Post – the company's owner, Wang Shenghua, has consistently tried to avoid paying compensation. After lawyers were brought in, with China Labour Bulletin's assistance, to represent the sick and dying workers and after lawsuits were threatened, in early March Wang finally agreed, after several years of stalling, to provide three of the worst affected workers with 205,000 Yuan each in compensation and two other affected workers with compensation of 60,000 Yuan each.
Most workers afflicted with silicosis in China receive little or even no compensation from their employers. Factory owners run away from their responsibility. They intentionally ignore the law, and sometimes their response on being approached by workers seeking compensation for occupational illness is simply to relocate their factories; sometimes they even establish new companies, so that the previous entity cannot be sued in court.
At their last meeting with the workers and their lawyer in Huizhou on March 12, Wang Shenghua and his lawyers reportedly hinted that Lucky Jewellery had many means and channels for dealing with any attempt by the workers to sue the company for causing their deteriorating health. Wang is a delegate of the People's Political Consultative Committee in Shanwei City. Politically well-connected entrepreneurs in China often enjoy less stringent official supervision of health and safety conditions in their factories, and in practice many operate with virtual impunity in this key area of PRC labour law. Wang's attitude towards outside criticism of his company's occupational health and safety practices can also be seen from the fact that, late last year, he initiated libel action in the Hong Kong courts against a HKCIC staff member for having alerted local and international public opinion about Lucky Jewellery's deplorable treatment of its seriously ill former workers.
Another notable case is that of a worker at the Perfect Gem & Pearl Manufacturing Company in Huizhou. Deng Wenping, 34, from Sichuan Province, is now suffering from Stage III silicosis – the final stage of this incurable illness. He was given only 90,000-Yuan compensation. He is dying and his wife has been fighting for a more reasonable sum.
For a worker dying of silicosis in China, 90,000 Yuan at first sight may seem like a considerable amount of compensation – and 200,005 Yuan even more so. In fact, since the disease kills slowly, many of the fortunate few among the affected workers who end up getting any compensation from their former employers will already have spent comparable amounts of money on medical treatment and periodic hospitalization – usually going heavily into debt in the process. Moreover, they are often their families' sole or main breadwinners, and hence their chief concern is usually to obtain sufficient compensation to provide for their families' needs – especially for their children's education – after they have died. For this reason, the sick and dying Lucky Jewellery workers originally fought for 450,000 Yuan in compensation – but they eventually had to settle for just half of that amount.
(Further information on the issue of silicosis-stricken jewellery workers in China can be found on HKCIC’s website: http://www.luckygerms.info/index.htm)
Five Thousand Jewellery Workers in Foshan City Protest against Exposure to Hazardous Dust
Recently, the hazardous working conditions in jewellery factories in Guangdong sparked a large-scale strike action at a Hong Kong-invested jewellery factory in Foshan City. On 15 March, around 5,000 jewellery workers at the Lian Industrial Co. Ltd's factory in the city's Dafu Industrial Zone went on strike in protest against being continually exposed to the risk of contracting pneumoconiosis, according to mainland media reports. According to the workers, they have to work for more than 10 hours each day in a workplace filled with dust. They are only entitled to one day off work every two months.
The workers at Lian Industrial suspected that medical checkups offered last year by the factory, which reported them to be in normal health, had been a sham. Since February, more than 200 workers have sought independent examinations from the Guangdong Provincial Hospital for Occupational Diseases Control and 12 of them have since been diagnosed with pneumoconiosis, with more cases suspected.
The protest strike at Lian Industrial has received wide news media coverage both on the mainland and in Hong Kong. As the strike continued, as of March 22, local police and labour and health officials also became involved. Witnesses say that more than 40 police vehicles arrived at the factory on 17 March and sealed the main entrance. Subsequently, local government officials told the local news media that more than 1,000 workers had been sent to hospitals in Foshan for further medical examination. At the time of writing, however, the workers diagnosed with silicosis had still received no offers of compensation from their employer.
 17 March 2005, Xinhua News Agency: http://www.china.org.cn/chinese/PI-c/813778.htm
 For details about Deng’s story, see: http://www.clb.org.hk/en/node/6999
1 April 2005