After a decade-long campaign for justice, a group of migrant workers from Leiyang, Hunan, have finally secured a commitment from the Shenzhen government to provide long-term economic compensation for the deadly lung disease, pneumoconiosis, that the workers had contracted whilst employed on the city’s construction sites in the 1990s.
The basic arrangement, agreed last week, provides for a one-off payment to each of the about 200 surviving workers and the families of deceased workers, and guarantees them all a modest monthly income, plus coverage of their medical expenses. The exact amount of the monthly stipend is still under discussion however with the workers demanding several thousand yuan and the Leiyang government only prepared at present to pay a few hundred yuan a month.
The one-off lump sum payments vary from 120,000 yuan for those with a stage one illness, 170,000 yuan for stage two, 220,000 yuan for those with final stage three pneumoconiosis, and 240,000 yuan for the families of those who had already died. Ailing workers who had received an earlier compensation payment would only receive the monthly stipend and coverage of medical expenses.
Shenzhen construction worker surrounded by deadly dust
In 2009, a group of about 180 workers from Leiyang were awarded a total of 14 million yuan in compensation after months of protests and negotiations with the city government in Shenzhen. Most of the workers were given one-off payments of between 70,000 yuan for stage one and 130,000 yuan for stage three pneumoconiosis. See CLB’s research report The Hard Road: Seeking justice for victims of pneumoconiosis in China for more details.
Within a few years however, most of that money had gone, leaving many of the surviving workers and their families destitute. They subsequently returned to Shenzhen on numerous occasions, along with other workers from Leiyang and those from other areas who had not yet been compensated, in a bid to obtain a long-term settlement.
In July 2018, they sought help and support from the Leiyang municipal trade union but were rebuffed by an official who claimed that since the workers were not union members, there was nothing he could do, and that they should go to see the mayor or the health department instead. In response, the workers vowed to rely on their own resources.
Around 200 workers and family members from villages in Leiyang, Sangzhi and Miluo staged a series of protests in Shenzhen in early November, which were broken up by police using suspected pepper spray. But after that violent incident, officials at the municipal Human Resources and Social Security department did agree to talks.
The importance of a reliable long-term solution that provides regular economic support and covers medical expenses for all these workers and their families cannot be overstated. While there is no cure for pneumoconiosis, palliative care and medical treatments are available but they are expensive and out of reach for poor rural families with no income.
The new agreement is not perfect but it will at least provide a degree of relief and comfort to the surviving workers and the families of those who have already died. And it shows that the Shenzhen government does now shoulder part of the responsibility for the occupational illness of the thousands of construction workers who built the city during the boom years of the 1990s and 2000s.