It is with much sadness that CLB reports that Deng Wenping, a migrant worker who contracted silicosis while working at a Hong Kong-invested jewellery factory in southern China due to grossly inadequate workplace safety provision, finally died of his illness on 5 January, after years of struggling to meet his extremely expensive medical bills and only months after winning a several year-long legal battle to obtain compensation.
About 100 or so jewellery industry-related silicosis cases in Guangdong have been identified so far by CLB and other labour and human rights groups in Hong Kong, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. According to the PRC Ministry of Health, around 440,000 Chinese workers currently have silicosis, but in April 2005, the ministry's own experts estimated that the real figure was "around ten times higher." Many migrant workers are slowly dying of this illness because their employers failed to provide them with even the legally-required minimum level of workplace health and safety protection. Deng Wenping's tragic case highlights the severe human cost, in terms of basic health and safety, being paid daily by countless migrant workers for the sake of China's rapid economic development.
Deng was only 36 years old when he died; he is survived by his wife and two young children. He was diagnosed as having developed life-threatening silicosis after just three years on the job as a stone cutter and polisher. Previously, the average incubation period for this type of pneumoconiosis was seven years, suggesting that the health and safety conditions in the plant where Deng worked were particularly egregious.
His wife Tang Manzhen told CLB that Deng had been unable to breathe on his own for several months and that he had been reliant on an inflated "oxygen pillow" to stay alive. More recently, he had been receiving medical treatment for silicosis in a local hospital in his hometown in Sichuan before his death. "The daily medical fees were very high. He needed continuous emergency treatment during his last days," Tang said.
In July 2005, Deng received a total of 230,000 yuan (around USD 28,000) in compensation from his former employer, Perfect Gem & Pearl Manufacturing Company, in an out-of-court settlement mediated by the Huizhou Intermediate People's Court and Boluo County Court. Deng had earlier received 90,000 yuan in compensation from the company in 2001. The combination of Deng's illness-related loss of ability to work, the cost of the family's four-year legal fight for compensation and the punitively high medical bills that he had to pay throughout his illness eventually bankrupted the family.
By the time he died, very little of Deng's hard-won compensation money was left: Most of the settlement had been spent on paying for his medical care and to repay loans borrowed from friends and relatives, Deng's wife told CLB. Prior to the court settlement, the family even had to sell their home to pay Deng's medical bills and repay debts. His wife and their two children are now living with Deng's older sister.
The children, a nine-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter, will be able to continue their studies thanks to financial support from non-governmental organisations in Hong Kong, Ms. Deng said. Previously also a migrant worker in the cities, she has now gone back to a farming job in her home village. She said it was difficult for her, at the age of 36, to find any other kind of work by which to support herself and the two children.
She thanked China Labour Bulletin and other Hong Kong-based groups for helping her husband to fight for fair compensation. "I hope that the jewellery industry in Guangdong will pay more attention to workers' occupational health and safety and I hope that there will be no more heartbreaking tragedies like the one that's happened to my family," she said.
However, silicosis victims in China are now starting to fight back. In recent months, about 30 of them are known to have taken court action to force their employers to pay them decent compensation, and these lawsuits have produced initially encouraging results. Court-ordered compensation awards for silicosis victims in the jewellery industry have ranged from around 200,000 yuan to a recent record high of 463,000 yuan. In countless other such cases, however, seriously ill workers have neither the funds nor the confidence to hire lawyers to press for compensation through the court system. The real solution therefore can only lie in primary preventative measures - meaning factory owners have to begin taking China's laws and regulations on workplace safety seriously; and if they refuse to do so, the government must act to enforce the rules and punish the violators.
China Labour Bulletin extends its sincere condolences to Deng Wenping's wife and two children over their sad loss. Deng's death highlights the urgency of the need for Hong Kong investors and the relevant Guangdong authorities to take immediate action to remedy the dangerous working conditions found in most of the province's jewellery processing industry. Workers' rights and wellbeing must be respected - they are not a mere optional extra in the process of China's continuing economic growth and modernization.
For more information on the silicosis epidemic in China, please see the following:
- CLB research report Deadly Dust: http://iso.china-labour.org.hk/public/contents/article?revision%5fid=19186&item%5fid=19182
- Interview with Deng Wenping's wife: http://www.clb.org.hk/public/contents/article?revision%5fid=7003&item%5fid=6999
Also, you can sign our online campaign for safe working conditions for the jewellery workers in Guangdong at:
14 February 2006