Radio Australia: China accused of neglecting millions of workers with lung disease

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

25 April 2013

China Labour Bulletin says the Chinese government must assume responsibility for the mainly-migrant workers in the mining and quarry industries.

It says the debilitating lung disease pneumoconiosis is often fatal, with families of migrant workers left impoverished and debt-ridden.

China Labour Bulletin says it's time the central government stepped in to address the crisis.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Geoffrey Crothall, Communications Director, China Labour Bulletin in Hong Kong

CROTHALL: Most people would know it by one of its variants, which is 'black lung disease', which is often associated with coal miners, but anybody who works with stone, minerals, also in quarrying, construction work, even in the jewellery industry, they're all potential victims.

LAM: And what does your latest research tell you about pneumoconiosis - are Chinese labourers still coming down with it, has the situation got worse?

CROTHALL: It's very difficult to tell, because there's no really reliable data on the number of workers with pneumoconiosis. The figure of six million is the best estimate that we have at the moment, but new cases are being discovered all the time. Just last week, there was a village in the centre of China that no one really knew about before - a population of twenty-thousand, out of which, 550 workers had contracted pneumoconiosis.

The important thing here is that for every worker that contracts pneumoconiosis, their entire family is affected as well, because they're the person who has to go out to work and once they get this disease, they can no longer work because it's so debilitating. All they can do is stay at home and receive charity, really.

LAM: China Labour Bulletin says pneumoconiosis is also entirely preventable and indeed, rights groups have highlighted the problem for years. What's been the response of the central government in Beijing?

CROTHALL: The central government in Beijing is fully aware of the problem, but it says, Oh, that's something local governments should deal with. The problem is that local governments in China are wholly incapable of dealing with the problem, because the governments where these workers live, they're nearly all very poor migrant workers from the countryside. The areas in which they live, are impoverished villages - the local governments there simply don't have any money - they can't afford to build decent schools, they can't afford decent health care, and they certainly can't afford to look after thousands and thousands of dying workers in their backyard. So, it really is the responsibility of the central government, which has been advocating this high-speed economic growth in China for the last two decades, the stand up and take responsibility.

LAM: And so what are some of your recommendations - how would China Labour Bulletin like the central government in Beijing, to respond to this health crisis?

CROTHALL: We have four basic recommendations. The first one is that the Chinese government conducts a nationwide survey to determine once and for all, how many people are affected by this terrible disease. Once you've done that, you should introduce legislation that would remove all legal impediments to workers with pneumoconiosis from claiming occupational disease benefits.

The problem at the moment is that even if a worker is diagnosed with pneumoconiosis, there's no guarantee that they'll get compensation, because under the current system, workers have to prove that they have a labour relationship with a particular employer - that's just impossible for most migrant workers, because they've never signed a labour contract, they don't have any documentation to prove an employment relationship. So the law has to change, and it has to say that pneumoconiosis is an occupational disease. Once you're diagnosed with pneumoconiosis, you go straight to disability assessment and the compensation is provided thereafter.

Most of these workers are simply hired, word of mouth, they don't have any social security, they don't have any kind of documentation to prove they were actually employed.

LAM: But I understand that workers who are well enough, they're organising themselves into lobby groups - so have they achieved any results at all?

CROTHALL: Yes, there've been some very positive results in terms of collective action. There was a group of 180 migrant workers from a central Chinese province, who used to work on the construction site of Shenzhen, which is the big boom town city in southern China.

LAM: Bordering Hong Kong?

CROTHALL: Bordering Hong Kong, exactly. And they went back to Shenzhen, lobbied the local government, their former employers, and after threatening to sue the Shenzhen municipal government, they were awarded around 14-million yuan in compensation, that's about two-million US dollars.

LAM: And so do you think that situation could be replicated elsewhere, in other provinces in China?

CROTHALL: Umm, that has happened from time to time, but this is not the ideal solution to the problem - forcing already sick and impoverished workers to travel thousands of kilometres and camp outside the government (offices), to demand what they should be legally entitled to.

What we need to do is just cut through all that red tape and just give the workers what they deserve straight away.

And one way to do that is for the central government to set up a special fund, which would provide all the medical expenses and day-to-day living expenses of these workers and their families.

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