Disposing of the evidence: How government officials make work-related accidents go away

18 July 2014

When Zhang Lihua’s father was killed along with four co-workers in a road accident on the way to work last year, one of the top priorities of the local authorities was to make sure all the victims were cremated without delay. As Zhang told CLB Director Han Dongfang in May this year:

The Village Party Secretary threatened all our relatives to get them to persuade us to cremate the body... When we disagreed, the traffic police told us that they would do it for us. It was right after my father died. The guy told us he was just taking orders from the mayor.

This was not an isolated incident. In fact it is a well-established practice in the wake of major work-related accidents, especially those where there are close ties between the employer and the local government. Major workplace accidents look bad on the record of local government officials and they want to make them go away as quickly as possible; tidy up any loose ends and make sure nothing comes back to bite them at a later date.

The bodies of the dead are an embarrassment to the authorities, an unpleasant reminder of the accident. Moreover, many local officials are petrified that the victims’ families will try to use the body as some kind of bargaining chip in a bid to get more compensation.

The standard practice of local officials in the wake of an accident is to create a “special taskforce” that will descend on the families of victims and force them to accept a one-off compensation agreement on the spot. And one of the conditions for getting compensation is cremating the body. If families hesitate or ask too many questions, the compensation amount will decrease.

The widow of a miner who died in the state-owned Dongfeng Coal Mine disaster of 2005 told Han Dongfang at the time: 

Nobody pays any attention to our wishes… I have two daughters at home, and I am not in good health. I thought the mine operators could perhaps arrange a job for one of the daughters, but they said that’s not possible. We said the girls are both in a very difficult position. Could they not give them a basic living allowance? Again, they said that’s not possible. We were told there is no such requirement by law. It was just, ‘you must sign this, so get on with it and we’ll give you an extra 10,000 yuan. If you don’t sign, then we will knock off 3,000 yuan, and if there is no agreement next time, we will knock off another 3,000 yuan.’ When we heard this, we signed quickly, just as they wanted, and got the money.

The total compensation offer these days is quite high (around 600,000 yuan) but of course it comes with strings attached. Families who accept the deal are basically signing away their rights to sue the local government or the employer for further liability. So even if the government or employer was, at a later date, found to be grossly negligent in the accident, the families would get not one cent more.

For the Zhang family however it is not just about the money. As Zhang Lihua explained; by sweeping industrial accidents under the carpet, the local authorities are actually perpetuating the lax safety standards and dangerous working conditions that cause such tragedies in the first place. The family’s goal therefore is to expose the dangerous collusion between local government officials and employers and make sure that history does not repeat itself.

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