Former miners sue county health department over occupational disease

14 October 2011
In a bid to gain compensation and highlight the workplace health and safety obligations of local governments, a group of 75 former miners and their families from remote villages in Sichuan have filed an administrative lawsuit against a local county health department for dereliction of duty.

The lawsuit was filed with the Ganluo County Court on 11 October and the court said it would decide within seven days whether or not to accept the case, the Sichuan News network reported Thursday.

The miners all suffer from the deadly lung disease, pneumoconiosis, contracted while working in Ganluo county in southern Sichuan. Several of their colleagues have already died of the disease and many of the plaintiffs do not have long to live.

Most of the plaintiffs had worked in small privately-run lead and zinc ore mines in Ganluo during the 1990s and early 2000s until the mines were taken over by the local government in 2003. It was only after the miners lost their jobs and returned to their home villages near Leshan, more than 100 kilometres away, that they discovered they were ill.

In the late 2000s, when their medical debts grew to an intolerable level and their colleagues started to die, the miners finally realised how serious their plight was and began their campaign for compensation. However they were hampered in their quest by the fact that they had never signed an employment contract with the mine boss and therefore could not prove they had ever worked in Ganluo.

Moreover, the former mine owners had disappeared after the 2003 local government takeover and could not be found and held accountable. One nearby county did offer some medical insurance to the victims but the miners from the other counties got nothing.

The plaintiffs argued in their lawsuit that the Ganluo Health Department failed in its duty to ensure that work health and safety standards were enforced in the mines. The lawsuit claims that at no point in their employment did the miners undergo any kind of health check, this despite the extremely hazardous and dust-ridden environment they were forced to work in. The health department consistently failed to fulfil its legal obligations of supervision and management, the lawsuit said.

The plaintiffs’ lawyer said the aim of the lawsuit was not simply to get compensation for the miners but to make all local government departments across China aware of their legal responsibilities regarding occupational disease.

For more information on pneumoconiosis and the difficulties workers encounter in getting compensation, see CLB’s research report The Hard Road: Seeking justice for the victims of pneumoconiosis in China.
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