The hard road from Sichuan to Guangdong

16 November 2010

China Labour Bulletin’s research report on the victims of pneumoconiosis profiled six workers at the Hong Kong-owned Lucky Jewellery factory in southern China. All six had contracted the fatal lung disease after inhaling rock dust for several years but only one had received anything like adequate compensation for their disability.

Prior to the report’s publication in April this year, CLB Director Han Dongfang talked to Yang Renbin, one of the five victims who were still waiting for compensation. Yang worked as an engraver for 12 years at Lucky Jewellery in Shenzhen and Huizhou before contracting silicosis, the pneumoconiosis variant caused by silica dust. He told Han about the appalling working conditions at the factories, management’s strategy of getting rid of employees as soon as they begin to exhibit signs of silicosis, and the role of local labour department and judicial officials in blocking his quest for compensation. Today, one year after the interview in November 2009, Yang is still waiting.

Yang was a young migrant worker from Guang’an, Sichuan, the hometown of China’s architect of economic reform, Deng Xiaoping. He arrived at Shenzhen’s Lucky Jewellery Factory, aged 19 years old, just one year after Deng’s famous 1992 Southern Tour to the city, which reignited Shenzhen and China’s reform process.

He worked as an engraver, carving semi-precious stones into animal shapes, which were then “sold to Hong Kong and then sent on to other places.” The largest of the carved animal statues could weigh “over three hundred pounds,” he said. Initially, the company provided no protective equipment at all for the engravers. Water was used to sluice away the dust, Yang said, “but there was still a lot of dust.”

Around 2000, the company started arranging the annual physical exams for its employees that were required by law. However, the company did not share the exam results with them. The exams were performed at the factory by doctors from the Guangdong Centre for Occupational Disease Control and Treatment, and lung x-rays were taken. “After the exam, the workers could not see the results at all, but the company knew the results,” Yang said. The company might share the results, but only if “the worker had a good relationship with the leadership,” explained Yang. When the workers asked the hospital directly for the results, they were told, “Your results have all been sent over to Lucky,” Yang continued. “They would brush us off with one sentence. They said, these are unified results from your company and, if you want to see the results, go to the company.”

Yang had gone to the company to request his results “many times,” but all to no avail:

They would say ‘No problem, no problem,’ but the company was like this: as soon as it was found out that you had a problem, you as a worker would not see the results at all. They would then deliberately find an excuse and use all sorts of tactics to get you dismissed, get you fired, or even make you resign. They used these kinds of tactics.

Forcing sick workers out

To counteract the company’s tactics, Yang and several of his co-workers paid for their own medical exams. From 2001 onwards, Yang went to several hospitals in Chongqing and Sichuan. He also “went to the Guangzhou No. 12 People’s Hospital for an exam, who said I definitely showed the precursors to silicosis.” In 2004, a hospital in Sichuan diagnosed him with Stage 0+ Silicosis.

The following May, after Lucky had relocated again, this time to Haifeng county in the coastal city of Shanwei, Yang and two of his co-workers were taken to the Guangdong Centre for another exam. “One co-worker was evaluated with Stage 2 Silicosis, and they said that I and another co-worker could not be definitively evaluated; we had lung markings and disorder, and they recommended a follow-up exam in one year,” said Yang. “We had already approached the company, and they knew that we had this, and we knew ourselves that we had a problem,” Yang continued. He admitted however that he had never asked the company to arrange for treatment of his illness, because “we were afraid that they would get rid of us.” But this is precisely what happened.

Yang explained why the company was so anxious to get rid of employees once they showed signs of silicosis. “This is the key,” he said: “If you are still in the company when you are sick, it is a little easier to bring a lawsuit later. If you have left the company before you are sick, it is very hard to bring a lawsuit afterwards.” Since the law does not permit an employee to be fired because of a suspected occupational disease, companies would “use various other tactics;” he said. “With ours, they had a good relationship with public security, they colluded with them.”

On 2 September 2005, Yang got off work as usual:

We didn’t have a time clock installed because we had just moved, and the leadership told us when to start and stop work…that afternoon, it was a Friday afternoon, we stopped work as usual when the department manager told us to stop work. So we all ended the shift, everyone, the whole department at once. Then they stopped me and told me to go back, that it wasn’t time yet and I shouldn’t get off that early. I said that it was the department director who told us to stop, and that it was time. I just said this one sentence, and they said that my attitude was very aggressive and they wanted to take my company badge. I said, ‘On what basis should I give my badge to you? We got off work normally, didn’t we? Why have I been stopped here now?’

The following Monday morning the company’s security director summoned Yang and demanded an explanation:

After I explained it to him, he didn’t say anything. In the afternoon, he dismissed me on the grounds that I did not stop work according to regulations, and took an aggressive attitude when advised by security, which had an extremely negative impact. He wrote one of those dismissal notices for me, and this is how I was got rid of… I had not gotten into a fight; this was how the company framed me. They found any little reason to get you out of the company; this is how it was.

After Yang received his dismissal notice, about 20 employees came to his defense, demanding an explanation from management. Four of those workers, all of whom had suspected silicosis, were accused of organizing a strike, and dismissed, Yang said.

Running into a brick wall of officialdom

The workers filed an arbitration claim at the Haifeng County Labour Dispute Arbitration Committee. But, said Yang, “the arbitration committee doesn’t listen at all in these circumstances, they don’t believe you.”

After being fired, Yang “went back to Sichuan and got an exam…Sichuan diagnosed Stage 1 Silicosis.” He took the result back to the company, but “they ignored me... Then I took these results to the Haifeng County Labour Bureau to apply for a classification of my work-related injury.”

The company then tried to convince Yang to get a “post-employment” exam when the Guangdong Centre sent a medical team to the Lucky factory again in October.

I said that I already had a diagnosis; I was Stage 1, so why would I want a post-employment exam? They said that my results were from Sichuan, and only exam results from Guangdong were valid in Guangdong. Finally, there was nothing I could do. The arbitration committee was not issuing a decision, and they would not give me a work-related injury classification.

Yang eventually agreed to take the post-employment exam on October 14, the results of which were “increased lung markings and disorder,” with a recommended follow-up exam in one year. “The labour bureau then classified my work-related injury; using the Guangdong Centre’s results. They classified me as not having a work-related injury.”

Yang then began a lengthy legal battle, bringing a civil suit against his former employer in the local Haifeng County court on the basis that the company should not have fired him while knowing that he had a suspected occupational disease. “I lost in the first trial. They said I had violated company discipline. Then I appealed to the Shanwei Municipal Intermediate Court, and the result was the same,” Yang said.

Meanwhile, Yang continued to get follow-up exams in Guangdong. Finally, in July 2008, he was formally diagnosed with Stage 1 Silicosis. Armed with this new result, Yang sought another classification of his work-related injury, but; “The Labour Bureau issued a notice saying that it had been over two years since I had left my employer, so they would not accept my case.”

According to Guangdong’s 2008 Notice regarding Further Improving Problems in the Province’s Work-Related Injury Insurance System, classification of a work-related injury must be done within two years of leaving the employer. “After two years, they have no more responsibility,” Yang said.

Yang appealed the decision but the review upheld the original decision. Yang had been through three lawyers by this time, the last of whom had just finished law school. The lawyers tended to be very pessimistic about his case and did not stay to see their client through to the next stage of the process.

To make ends meet, Yang got a job as a waiter, and then as a security guard at the same restaurant. But in May 2009, “because I had this lawsuit with the company, the restaurant might have learned something about it, and they let me go.” His family now relies on his wife’s income to get by; his two children live at home in Sichuan with his parents.

At the time of the interview, Yang Renbin said that his health was “about the same;” he still suffered from Stage 1 Silicosis. He felt “tightness in the chest and shortness of breath when doing heavy work.”

However Yang was very well aware of the irreversible nature of the disease. He also knew that a lung lavage, which could help mitigate the progression of the disease if performed annually, cost around ten thousand yuan each time. Without compensation, Yang asked; “How can we manage to get such treatment?”

Han Dongfang’s interview with Yang Renbin was originally broadcast in six episodes in November 2009. To read the full Chinese transcript or listen to the audio file of the broadcast please go to the workers’ voices section of our Chinese language website and follow the links.

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