Substantial payout to migrant worker should not distract attention from the plight of others

24 September 2009

The award last week of 615,000 yuan in damages to China’s best-known pneumoconiosis victim, Zhang Haichao, is very welcome news but it should not suggest that work-related illness sufferers in China are getting a better deal – far from it.

Zhang’s award, a mediated settlement with his employer, an abrasive materials manufacturer in Henan, was more than three times the standard award given to the relatives of fatal coalmine accident victims, and almost certainly resulted from the intense publicity surrounding the case.

Zhang became something of a celebrity in China after voluntarily undergoing an operation to open up his chest to prove he was suffering from pneumoconiosis and not tuberculosis as incorrectly diagnosed by his local Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

But, as Zhang himself has been the first to admit, other migrant workers have not been so lucky. More than ten thousand  workers in the coalmining, quarrying, sand processing and gemstone industries contract pneumoconiosis (or a variant of it such as silicosis) every year, and the vast majority struggle to get any compensation at all.

Just about the only way to get decent compensation it seems is to create a big noise and hope to get the media involved. About the same time as Zhang Haichao hit the headlines, more than 100 migrant workers from Hunan staged a sit-in outside the city government building in Shenzhen demanding compensation for the lung disease they had contracted while blasting and drilling the foundations for the city’s skyscrapers. They ended up squatting in Shenzhen for over a month before the government finally agreed to pay the few worst sufferers (those with stage three pneumoconiosis) 300,000 yuan each, but only those who could prove their employment relationship. The large majority of workers did not have the necessary documentation and went home with only minimal compensation from the government. Those with the right paperwork were given 200,000 yuan if they suffered from stage two of the disease but only around 20,000 yuan if they suffered from stage one.

For one migrant worker however the compensation award came too late. Xu Zezhi, died on 25 August after his pneumoconiosis deteriorated unexpectedly rapidly. He was cremated in Shenzhen and his ashes returned to his family in Hunan, along with 150,000 yuan in compensation from the Shenzhen government.

In early August, a labour activist met with Xu and his colleagues in their hotel. This is his recollection of that meeting.

I had gone upstairs to the third floor of the Yangma Hotel in Bantian, and in the first room on the right, I saw him. I recognised him from his photograph in the Hunan Morning Post. He saw me coming, and tried his best to stand up. His throat moved slightly, but he was unable to speak. He was skin and bone; a gust of wind could have blown him away.

I walked across the corridor, and greeted the other workers. They all came out of their rooms to see me; all of them were thin and weak, pneumoconiosis, this incurable disease, had brought low these proud men who used to earn their living from hard manual labour.

In a room at the end of the corridor, I sat and chatted with a few of their representatives. Xu Zezhi came too, supported by others, and he sat next to me. I remember, on that very hot summer day, I held his hand tightly. He was different from the other workers who were all trying to get a word in; from the beginning to the end, he said nothing. It was not because he didn't wish to speak but to open his mouth and speak was an act of extreme physical difficulty.

Soon after that meeting, Xu’s condition deteriorated dangerously quickly but he was initially refused admission to hospital and told by paramedics that all he needed was rest and sunlight. However, a few days later, when there was no improvement in his condition, he was finally admitted Shenzhen’s Second Municipal Hospital. Ten days later, he died.

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