Chronic occupational illness and injury has become a common phenomenon in the prosperous cities of southern China. Since 2000, many cases have surfaced in several Hong Kong-invested jewellery factories in Guangdong Province. These workers find themselves living out their remaining days in the worst slums, trying to seek compensation and justice.
In most cases, the victims, who are in their 20s to 40s, were the family breadwinners before their lungs were contaminated by the deadly dust from cutting precious stones. So the destruction of their health devastates the whole family. China Labour Bulletin recently interviewed the wife of a migrant worker afflicted by silicosis. On top of caring for her dying husband, she worries about her children who remain in her home village, and she tries to fight for compensation. She shared her experience with CLB as follows:
My name is Tang Manzhen and my husband is Deng Wenping. We are both 34 years old. I came to Huizhou to work in January 1998, a few months after my husband had started work in the Stone-Cutting Section of the Perfect Gem & Pearl Manufacturing Company. Back home we were farmers, working day and night to make ends meet. We thought that factory work in Guangdong sounded promising, so we left our eight-year-old daughter and two-year-old son with their grandparents in a village in Sichuan, to come here.
I started working in the perforation (gem drilling) section of the same factory. My husband earned 1,000 Yuan a month and my wages were on a piece-rate basis. I worked from 7.30 am to 9.30 pm or even later, with one day off a month, for 900 Yuan a month. Chinese New Year was the time we looked forward to most, when we could go home for a few days and see our children and parents. Our wages meant we could send our daughter to school and have a house built in our hometown, where we hoped to return one day. But in late 2000 everything went wrong.
After the factory’s annual medical test, my husband was notified that he had contracted tuberculosis. We were suspicious because tuberculosis is infectious and if he had it, why hadn’t I caught it? So, together with five other colleagues, my husband went for an examination at another hospital.
It turned out that all of them were suffering from silicosis and my husband’s condition was diagnosed as being at Stage II of the illness. On learning of this, the factory fired them all on 5 January 2001, just three days after they came out of hospital.
On the morning of 8 January 2001, I received notification from the factory that it was “inappropriate for me to work in this factory anymore” and the security guards forced me to pack and leave immediately. I am sure it had nothing to do with my performance. I had been working there for three years. How could they suddenly find me unsuitable?
I wanted to look for another job so that I could support my children and pay for my husband’s medical treatment, but he was so sick that I could not leave him alone at home. I needed to cook for him, bathe him and take him to the clinic. Now he can’t even dress himself so I have to do everything for him.
My husband received 90,000 Yuan compensation from the factory, but our lives have been ruined. We have spent all the compensation money and our own savings and even sold our house to pay for his medical treatment. Four years on, we are now heavily in debt, so we are currently trying to sue the company in court to get higher compensation.
His condition is now at Stage III, the last stage of this incurable illness. He now needs oxygen therapy once every two days to combat his breathing difficulties. We cannot afford to go to better hospitals, so we go to small clinics. But still, it costs 140 Yuan each time.
Since he contracted silicosis, I haven’t had a good night’s sleep. I am worried all the time. How long does he have left? How can his suffering be reduced? How are my children? What shall I do when he is gone? What if we lose the court case? How can we repay our debts? These thoughts keep me awake during the endless nights, accompanied by his coughing and murmuring.
Both my husband’s parents passed away in 2001, less than half a year after learning of his illness. My children then moved to my parents’ place. My parents are understanding and want to help me out, but sometimes my brother and sister-in-law, who also live there, complain. Well, they are probably right, they have their own children to look after and it is not their responsibility to take care of mine.
My children are now 14 and 8. The younger one has never been to school and the elder one had to quit because we couldn’t afford her tuition fees. I don’t want to cry in front of my husband because he suffers enough, but when I call my children, I cannot hold back my tears anymore. They always ask when they can return to school. Kids in the village laugh at them, saying that they have parents working in Guangdong but cannot send them to school. It breaks my heart when I hear those stories.
You know, I have not seen my children for more than three years. A return ticket to Sichuan costs 600 Yuan and I can’t afford it. “How tall are my children? Have they put on weight? Are they naughty?” I always ask my friends when they return after Chinese New Year.
We are now living on the charity of good-hearted people. A fellow villager, who works in Huizhou, lets us have a spare room and I have borrowed money from friends and relatives to treat my husband. But it is getting more difficult because they know he will not recover, so they probably will not be repaid. I feel extremely bad about this.
My husband is dying, but still I don’t want to give up. All I wish now is that the factory will pay for his medical expenses and give us some compensation, so that he can live longer and my children can return to school. I cannot imagine what will happen to me when he dies. I am too old to find a job in Guangdong but I am worried that I will not be able to earn enough by farming to support my children.
 There are about 8.3 Yuan to the US dollar.
 Mr Deng was diagnosed with Silicosis Stage II, equivalent to Level 4 of Disability under China’s Regulation on Work-related Injury Insurances. According to the Regulation, occupational illness victims, with Level 1 to Level 4, can choose to have a one-off compensation or continuous compensation. Mr Deng said he was forced to leave the factory under threat of physical attack from the factory’s security guards. He made a complaint to the local labour department but was beaten up by the officials there. In April 2001, short of money for living and medical expenses, he had to accept the one-off compensation.
 The initial offer of compensation was 100,000 Yuan but Mr Deng said he has been required by the factory management to pay them 10% commission for handling the case. The handling fee was off the record.
 The place Mr & Mrs Deng live looks like an abandoned house from the outside. On the day of this interview, it was drizzling and her room was dark and damp. She has to gather wood for cooking and has no access to clean water in her home.
9 March 2005