Migrant workers with pneumoconiosis return to Shenzhen in search of justice

13 May 2010

China Labour Bulletin’s latest research report features a group of migrant workers from around Leiyang in Hunan who contracted the deadly lung disease pneumoconiosis whilst working as explosives and drill operators on Shenzhen’s construction sites in the 1990s.

In the summer of 2009, around 180 of them returned to Shenzhen to seek compensation for the occupational illness that had by then devastated their village communities. One of their leaders, Xu Zhihui, talked to CLB Director Han Dongfang at the time and his conversation eventually led to the workers threatening legal action against the Shenzhen government, and the government subsequently agreeing to pay out around 14 million yuan in compensation. A detailed case summary can be found in the research report The Hard Road: Seeking justice for victims of pneumoconiosis in China.

The following is a summary of Han Dongfang’s interview with Xu Zhihui, first broadcast on Radio Free Asia in August 2009.

Xu told Han that although drilling and blasting work on Shenzhen’s construction sites was seasonal, on average only about 100 days a year, labourers could still earn double what whey would by working in a factory for an entire year. As such, starting in 1992, nearly two hundred young men, largely recruited through clan and village networks, came from Leiyang to work in Shenzhen.

“The pile-blasting for the foundations of all the skyscrapers in Shenzhen was done by our group from Leiyang,” Xu said. He personally worked as a driller, drilling rock underground to help lay the foundations for projects like the Diwang Building. When the earth was dug away, exposing rock, it was his job to break the rock apart. “For a building as high as the Diwang, with dozens of floors, you had to dig down to the bedrock layer,” he explained. “You couldn’t do it with pick axes and so on; it had to be blasted apart. That was the part we did.” After blasting, they would break the rock apart using their drills.

Working in underground caverns in clouds of rock dust

Xu worked in unventilated caverns 40 or 50 metres underground, with rock dust blown up by the high-pressure drills swirling around his head. The dust became so thick that “you couldn’t see the person next to you,” said Xu. “In terms of prevention measures,” Xu continued, “we didn’t even wear masks” for the first year. Dust prevention masks were not available until 1995 but, “to save money, the boss and labour contractor on one site only gave you a new mask when the old one rotted,” Xu said.

In order to reduce the amount of dust in the air, the drills Xu used came with a water hose that was supposed to wet the dust and sluice it way in the form of slurry. But, because “we moved around a lot, and it was a great hassle to take the water hose out, the contractor at the time eliminated this system and we didn’t use it anymore,” Xu explained. At the time, Xu and his coworkers were not aware of the consequences of not dampening down the dust: “We were young and strong and didn’t mind the dust. It was like this: if you nitpicked about this and that, the boss would fire straight away.”

The workers had never heard of pneumoconiosis, and received no training or information from their employers, in spite of the Regulations on Pneumoconiosis Prevention and Treatment, which had taken effect in 1987. The bosses and labour contractors who recruited the workers did not necessarily know about these legal provisions, either, Xu explained; “The contractors, they came to Shenzhen along with us and gradually did a bit better; they didn’t have to go underground, they sent us underground instead.” The employers also did not provide regular medical exams for the employees as required under the Law on Prevention and Treatment of Occupational Diseases. Only a very few workers in Xu’s group received occupational injury insurance contributions from their employer, as required by China’s Work-Related Injury Insurance Regulations.

No government inspections or monitoring

Nor did the local authorities or the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions ever conduct on-site inspections of working conditions or implement work safety measures on any site Xu worked on since 1992. The only inspection Xu remembered was the city of Shenzhen sending people to check “for hidden explosives...there would be a fine of 10,000 to 50,000 yuan on the company for that.” There were “absolutely no” other inspections, Xu said, “because what were we? A small, small group…there were only three, four, or five drillers working on a site. Sometimes there were only two or three on a site.”

Xu first exhibited symptoms of early stage pneumoconiosis in 2002. When he went for check up in Leiyang, the hospital “asked if I had been working in mines, down mine shafts; I said no, but had worked as a driller. They said it’s the same thing; you may have a problem. I didn’t worry about it then; I think I was out of money and I didn’t pay much attention. My health felt pretty good, so I didn’t pay attention to it,” said Xu. But he didn’t seek out drilling work after that, instead working on setting explosives for blasting work. The explosives work did not involve as much dust. “I had earned a blasting permit from the city of Shenzhen in 1998,” he explained.

However the disease gradually took hold, not just on Xu but on nearly all of the villagers who went to Shenzhen. At the time of the interview, 15 workers had already died and 33 others suffered from final stage-three pneumoconiosis, the youngest of whom was only 22-years-old. Xu’s 72-year-old neighbour lost three sons to pneumoconiosis, and despite age and infirmity he was still trying to farm his land; the only money he had came from one granddaughter working in Shenzhen.

Xu said he had spent “50,000 to 60,000 yuan” on medical examinations and treatment since 2006. He had spent all of his savings and taken out a bank loan of 30,000 yuan to cover costs. His family included three grown children and elderly parents, and his wife was working in a Shenzhen factory to try to support him, earning only 1,100 yuan per month.

Taking matters into their own hands

In desperation, Xu and eight other workers from Leiyang traveled to Shenzhen in May 2009. They first approached the Huaqi Blasting Company about compensation, and were told to obtain a certification of their occupational illness. On May 25, the first group of nine went to the occupational disease centre for a medical exam, and, in the following days, 152 more workers followed. The diagnoses were confirmed within a couple of weeks. But the vast majority of the group still lacked proof of a labour relationship with an employer, the key to initiating a claims process.

Xu realized that some of the employers could not afford to pay compensation and would not easily admit liability: “…the Huaqi Company does not have much money itself. Paying 20,000 yuan in compensation to each of 52 people will take ten million, and they don’t have that much. So their only choice is not to admit the labour relationship.”

Xu’s blasting permit from 1998 helped to document his labour relationship with his former employer, the Yuanheng Blasting Company, but only five or six other coworkers were able to obtain such documentation. “What should we do?” Xu asked, “A large number of us can’t even write their names. They can only do physical work. Tell us, what can we do?”

At the time of the interview, the Shenzhen government had approved what was termed a “charitable” compensation payment of 30,000 yuan for each worker, but, Xu said, “We may not be able to accept it,” because it was far below what they felt they deserved.

In response, Xu said his group would use a “local method, which is, since we have so many people, when they don’t respond to us, we will go and create some chaos for them. We’ll hunger strike; we should be able to do this. What will they do if we starve to death right there?”

Han suggested that instead of further demonstrations and protests, the workers adopt a legal strategy in which the Shenzhen government is held accountable for its failure to enforce the laws and regulations related to occupational health and safety in the city’s construction sites. This strategy eventually led to those workers whose labour relationship could be confirmed being paid out of the city’s work-related injury insurance fund (Xu was awarded 290,000 yuan) while the others were given a vastly improved “charitable” offer; 70,000 yuan for workers with stage-one pneumoconiosis, 100,000 yuan for those with stage two, and 130,000 yuan for stage three.

Han Dongfang’s interview with Xu Zhihui was broadcast over seven episodes in August 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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