For many factory workers in China, a serious debilitating injury can mean the end of their working career. But despite a well-established system of disability benefits, it is all too common for workers to be abandoned by both the state and their employer once they leave hospital. Song Sheng is but one example.
After working at the Huifeng structural steel factory for just 22 days in 2012, Songs’ lower legs were crushed by a falling steel beam. The company agreed to pay for Song's emergency treatment and hospitalisation. It also provided basic living expenses of between 300 and 500 yuan per month from the time of accident in July 2012 up to the fitting of prosthetic limbs in February 2013.
Once his treatment was complete however, Song was basically left on his own. Song had earned his living for nearly two decades as a riveter but now he had to rely on crutches to get around and could no longer work. But his employer did not want to know him anymore, and because he had never signed an employment contract, he found it next to impossible to get the disability payments he should have been entitled to.
Just over a year after the accident, Song was still in legal limbo and talked to China Labour Bulletin Director Han Dongfang about his on-going struggle for compensation.
The Huifeng structural steel factory was located in the Henan city of Xinxiang. It was a new facility, built at a cost of 37 million yuan, and employed 200-300 workers.
When we joined the plant, none of us in Xinxiang signed an employment contract, it was not just me. If the plant is large, the company will give you something to sign, but not a run-of-the-mill place like this... Everybody was employed on the basis of personal introductions - acquaintances working at the plant. They would do a stint, make their money and leave. Nothing was signed.
Nor did the company take out work-related injury insurance for Song, something that would have made him eligible for disability benefits from the state.
Neither I nor the management bought insurance cover. I presented my professional qualification certificate to the workshop foreman, and he said I did not need to buy anything just yet.
Management did acknowledge that the accident occurred while Song was working at the factory but without a work contract, they knew he would have a hard time getting any more money out them: Work-related injury claims in China are predicated on the existence of an employment relationship. "Go ahead, do as you like. We are not afraid,” he was told when he threatened legal action. Song was told the boss of Huifeng, a mid-level government functionary, had enough money, power and connections to effectively ignore complainants like Song.
Indeed, when Song did the rounds of local government offices looking for help, he was rebuffed at every turn.
When I went petitioning, they just looked right through me. Later I telephoned government officials but I could not get through to them. I went to the government offices, and the government people said that it did not fall within their remit.
All the company was prepared to do after the accident was pay Song’s immediate hospitalisation and living expenses. By law, it should also have paid him a full wage and covered his care expenses. After seven months’ rehabilitation, Song was discharged and embarked on the long lonely journey towards work-related injury compensation.
By August 2013, his application for verification of occupational injury was confirmed and he had also arranged for his own disability evaluation at the Fifth Affiliated Hospital of Zhengzhou University.
With the help of a privately-hired lawyer, Song sought to confirm an employment relationship at Huifeng. The case was handled by Xinxiang municipal labour arbitration committee but the one-year deadline for arbitration had already passed. Song said the case took so long to process because it was bounced between the city and county level governments, and because “the county level government may have some kind of connection with the plant boss.”
The arbitration committee urged Song to settle the dispute through mediation. Asked by Han whether there was a realistic chance of this happening, Song said he thought there was. In fact, he had already received one settlement offer from the plant management, of a lump sum payment of 210,000 yuan, made early in 2013, pending the confirmation of an employment relationship by the arbitration committee. But Song had refused to accept the offer:
210,000 yuan does not even cover the cost of the replacement of the prosthetic legs, which has to be done every three years. Never mind the fact that I have got to provide for myself, somehow find living expenses, get work, and support my family at home in Shanxi. I simply do not have enough cash.
It was estimated that even without the cost of replacing his prosthetic limbs, 210,000 yuan would not last him ten years. Song is unable to walk without crutches, and, at the age of just 35-years-old, has effectively lost the ability to work. He has two children, an 11-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl.
Right now everybody is dependent on my parents in the old home village. They give me a little money. Everybody relies on my parents at the moment.
To make matters worse, Song’s legal bills are currently between 10,000 and 20,000 yuan.
Han told Song that even without an employment contract, he should still get occupational injury payments, and that he should be eligible for lump-sum compensation and a disability allowance under China's Work-related Injury Insurance Regulations.
If your disability evaluation is between grades one and four - I believe that means that you have lost the ability to work - there are in fact very clear provisions. They cannot terminate your employment relationship. In Article 33 it says you should get a one-time disability allowance amounting to 24 months’ wages if you are graded at one, 22 months at grade two, 20 months at grade three and 18 months if you are grade four.
Han urged Song to rely more on his own resources rather than on his lawyer, and to make his own calculations of his financial needs. Assuming Song remains an employee of the company, even if incapacitated, he said:
Allowances and disability allowances are paid monthly from the Work-related Injury Insurance Fund, which is to say, if your employer has taken out insurance for you. You said that the employer had not taken out insurance, right? In that case, the enterprise would have to pay you itself according to the following standards: for grade one disability, 90 percent of the last wage; in other words if your monthly wage was 1,000 yuan, you would get 900 yuan, that is to say, they would keep on playing you that sum until you retire.
Han felt Song had a reasonably strong case, and that the factory management could not go on evading their legal responsibilities indefinitely, no matter what connections they might have. "They have the money," he said, "but you have all the tools you need in your hands."
This interview with Song Sheng was first broadcast on Radio Free Asia's 劳工通讯 in five episodes in late September and early October 2013.