A four decade-long struggle for compensation in rural Hubei

06 October 2014

Nearly 40 years ago, in the last days of Maoist China, a teenager from rural Hubei lost both her hands in a terrifying farm machinery accident. Since then, Zhou Xiuzhi has had to rely on help from other villagers, largely ad hoc discretionary local government hand-outs, and, most of all, the support of a selfless husband. In all of those four decades, due to official indifference, she never obtained formal verification of her severe occupational injury, with the result that she has missed out on a raft of state benefits that would have alleviated her long ordeal. The only official benefit she was able to obtain on anything like a regular basis was the paltry minimum living allowance, and even now she gets only 232 yuan a month in “provisional” payments, less than a quarter of the minimum wage in her hometown.

Zhou has had to rely on her three sons for financial aid but this burden has put a huge strain on their own lives and led to the breakup of two of their marriages. Zhou endured her misfortune mostly in silence until friends posted an account of her story on a microblog. In the summer of 2014, she told CLB Director Han Dongfang her tale of remarkable stoicism in the face of what for most people would be unimaginable adversity.

On 15 September 1975, Zhou was working as a tractor driver at a small agricultural machinery station in Hubei’s Zhongxiang county. Her task that day was consolidating the soil on an earth dam raised to guard against flooding from a nearby river. After a full day of work, she was asked by the management of the agricultural machinery station to go and work that very night on a cotton gin, separating cotton fibre from the seed and other unwanted matter. As a tractor driver, she was on ten yuan a month but she said: “You could work on the cotton processing at nights, if you wanted to earn extra income.” Despite being exhausted, she agreed to do it. It was already after 11 o’clock when she went in.

The ginning machinery was next to the cotton peeler (stripping) machine. After the cotton had been bundled it was transferred to the ginning machine. But the stripping machine had broken down. I put my hands into it to pull something out, and they were dragged by the serrated teeth into the machinery. When I screamed they shut it down, and I was sent to the hospital. Everybody was in shock. They gave me anaesthetic but I could see and hear everything. My left forearm was still intact but I had lost too much blood. I was bleeding all the way from the unit to the hospital. They telephoned the leadership of the commune and asked them, “Should we try to save her hands, (thereby risking her life), or just save her life?” The commune leadership replied, ‘Save her life.’ They amputated immediately.

Commune initially rallies round Zhou

The agricultural machinery station was operated by the Wanglong Commune in the town of Shipai. It employed around a dozen workers. Initially, the unit rallied round Zhou and provided her with the help she needed. 

The unit took care of me, helped me get back to work. They paid me the same wage as the others, and later the unit found me a husband. He was one of eight children, and things were very difficult for them at the time. The commune arranged for my husband to work at the unit’s agricultural machinery plant. He did odd jobs to make a living and when I needed help he took time off to look after me.

This arrangement was partly due to her husband’s family connections:

His brother had good connections with the management of the unit. His brother asked if it would be possible for my husband’s work to be arranged in such a way that he could care for me at the same time. There were negotiations with my husband, and on seeing my pitiful state, he agreed to this arrangement. My husband thought it might bring him some blessings too. He did not imagine how things would be. It was a burden, a very heavy burden.

Nonetheless, somehow they made the marriage work: “He was not that refined, being a villager, but he has a good heart.” In 1977, Zhou gave birth to the first of three sons, and by the mid-1980s, the pair were earning a combined monthly wage of between 60 and 70 yuan, which, at that time, was more than adequate in the Chinese countryside. But in 1987, the agricultural machinery station was abolished and converted into a starch plant. Under the old commune system, it had been a base for the operation and repair of tractors. But with the introduction of the household responsibility system, under which agricultural and other production were contracted to individual households, demand for the tractors dried up, and the agricultural machinery station was consolidated under a merger of four such stations in the area.

The starch plant proved to be a short-lived venture, going bust and closing down in 1992. Ordinarily in such cases, provisions should be made for employees with occupational injury before the bankruptcy procedures can be completed. But in Zhou’s case this did not happen. Nor did she receive any of the compensation that was paid out to the other redundant workers because the township authorities claimed they had lost her personal file. The local leaders took care to be absent when she complained about this. It was only due to the kindness of her colleagues, who pooled some of their redundancy money and gave her 2,000 yuan that she got anything at all out of the bankruptcy settlement. “They have really good hearts,” Zhou said.

Forgotten and discarded by the authorities

The local authorities subsequently did nothing for her whatsoever; making no arrangements for her future employment or the occupational injury benefits she was entitled to. In 1992, however, under a program to divide state-owned land to rural residents, her husband was allocated a smallholding, which has helped them to get-by. 

Zhou had to rely on her husband for almost everything. She was able to wash and prepare simple food, but all they had to live on was what her husband made from their fields, a sporadic minimum subsistence allowance, and an allowance for those who are ill or have lost the capacity to work, initially totalling just 40 yuan and later 60 yuan a month. Life was tough. Perhaps the saddest part was the impact it had on her family. Originally, she said, “we had wanted a girl,” to look after her in her old age, but she ended up with three sons. The now-grown-up children help out with medical bills. Some of these were considerable. In 2011, Zhou suffered a vertebral fracture, and needed an operation. The strain of caring for their mother as well as their own families eventually took its toll on two of the three sons, who were divorced by their wives after quarrelling with them over the care burden. “There is no filial loyalty any more,” Zhou said. “They are all way from home, adrift, and when I approach them for financial help, they are cold to me.”

The local authorities were equally cold and indifferent:

I have been to the local government offices so many times my feet hurt, but nothing gets done. In the beginning, all I could get was that 40 yuan a month, which was not enough to meet our needs. Throughout this process, the Civil Affairs Bureau said that there was nothing that could be done. They were not very patient. We had some pretty bad times. In 2009, they gave us the minimum subsistence allowance, but that dried up…I was told that it was too late, or too early, they had not sorted things out; I was kicked around like a football.

Only after Zhou’s former school friends and others launched an online campaign did the local government arrange for a new “provisional” allowance of 232 yuan to replace the monthly livelihood pittance. This took until 2011 to sort out. In all these years, still, no formal compensation of any kind had been paid to Zhou. Some of her medical costs, however, are met by the government.

Legal options

Apart from the 232 yuan provisional allowance, Zhou has to rely on sales of whatever her husband can grow in their smallholding. But his health is declining as well. He has been diagnosed with what are known as the “three highs;” high blood fat levels, high blood pressure and high blood sugar - conditions associated, ironically, with an affluent lifestyle. And, in addition to her original disability, Zhou now has rheumatism which has led to osteonecrosis. She is bedridden: “I cannot go out at all, I cannot make a living, I do not even know what day it is.” 

Han Dongfang pointed out that Zhou still had legal options. He said that the only relevant legislation in place at the time of her accident was the 1951 Labour Insurance Regulations, revised in1953, but these regulations did not cover collectively-owned enterprises such as Zhou’s agricultural machinery station. The Work-related Injury Insurance Regulations that were enacted in April 2003, however, include a clear commitment to ensuring medical relief and compensation for all employees who fall ill or sustain injuries because of their work - including employees of all kinds of business units within China, foundations, offices, and employees of sole entrepreneurs. Moreover, he said, the regulations made it clear that those workers who sustained an injury prior to the implementation of the regulations and who had not yet completed the injury verification and disability assessment process, should still be entitled to compensation once that process is completed, regardless of how long ago the accident actually occurred.

He argued that Zhou’s injuries should be classified as Grade 1(the most severe) disability, and as such she should be entitled to a monthly disability subsidy equivalent to 90 percent of the local average wage, plus monthly pension benefits.

Zhou said that, up until now, she had never seriously thought about her legal options:

At the time I was young, and these things were all unclear to us. For so many years, I was blundering around. Early on, we had no economic resources, no money, and to hire a lawyer, you need money. They told me at the Social Security office that you have to pay in more than 33,000 yuan just to get an allowance of less than 800 yuan a month. We live in a money-oriented society nowadays so I did not try to get legal help. Free legal aid is something I did not even dare to think about. My hope now is that the government can reform the social security system. If reforms are made, then we can scrape by somehow.

With the help of CLB, Zhou has now accepted free legal assistance and her lawyer is currently exploring avenues of redress.

This interview with Zhou Xiuzhi was first broadcast on Radio Free Asia's 劳工通讯 in nine episodes in June and July 2014.

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