Painted into a corner: Factory worker left with nowhere to go after contracting anaemia

25 March 2014

At first, Hu Fengchao just felt tired; his heart beat faster when he went upstairs and he started getting colds more easily. Eventually health tests revealed that he was suffering from anaemia. Hu had been working for a year or so at China Hualu Panasonic AVC Networks Co., Ltd. (CHPANC) in the north-eastern port city of Dalian. His job spray-painting DVD cases involved handling toxic chemicals such as benzene, toluene and xylene. But after he fell ill the company refused to accept that he was suffering from an occupational disease. At first, he was even told to continue painting DVD cases until further tests revealed that his platelet count was dangerously low; so low in fact that a minor bump could have triggered a fatal brain or visceral haemorrhage. At that point, at the age of 28, Hu was hospitalised with severe aplastic anaemia.

After a course of treatment at a specialist hospital in Tianjin, Hu was unable to resume his post. However, he remains on the company payroll for the time being. His prospects are not good; he cannot do any heavy work and needs blood transfusions. Meanwhile, instead of accepting responsibility and paying compensation, Hu claims CHPANC tried to buy their way out of long-term obligations by making “humanitarian” payments for his treatment, some of which he was expected to pay back. In December 2013, Hu described to CLB Director Han Dongfang his experiences, his current situation and his prospects.

Hu joined CHPANC, a 51-49% Sino-Japanese joint venture but effectively a state-owned enterprise, in March 2010. It was a large plant, with over 4,000 workers, producing DVDs, Blu-ray discs, DVD players and other equipment. Hu’s unit had around 100 employees.

A toxic environment

The basic paint colouring is black, and you have to change it into different colours. Then you paste on the trademark or whatever and re-spray it. These processes use benzene, toluene and xylene. Basically, I worked as a spray painter… If there had been no exposure to benzene, my bone marrow would not have been destroyed. That affects my ability to renew blood. That leads to the anaemia.

Hu told Han that during his three years at the plant, the company had never provided effective protective gear, only general-purpose masks that workers ended up not using because they got so dirty. Despite the exposure to toxic chemicals, the company did not insist on the use of masks in his workshop. That only changed after Hu’s condition became well-known among the workforce.

At the beginning there was some training in factory rules, but they did not make us aware of the danger of the working environment.... they just gave us this “safety card,” something you had to be aware of, without any formal explanation. Whether or not you read it, you still had to breathe the bad air in.

Workers did get a physical check-up on joining the company, but were not told that they would have to handle poisonous substances, Hu said.

When you do a job like this, you simply have to put up with the environment. In the beginning I had great difficulty with the terrible smell. After a while, I got used to it ... You can make good money here. All the workers are from the land, farmers’ sons, they just wanted to make a bit of money and support the family, look after their parents, marry a girl. I didn’t think much about things either.

Hu’s attitude changed when his colleagues started commenting on his appearance:

Some colleagues started telling me that I looked anaemic and that my face was particularly white. Later, I saw myself that my lips were a pale red. I went for a physical at the company, and they took a bit of blood, but my liver and other functions were normal. The doctor suggested I have more tests and then first raised the possibility of severe aplastic anaemia. Then I thought about it and realised that this might be connected with my working environment. On the Internet, I found out that benzene contains toxic substances that can lead to severe aplastic anaemia.

Realising the danger

But Hu did not have a formal diagnosis, and the company did not take him off spray-painting duty. Asked why he had not been rotated into a safer position, Hu said: “I don’t know. Maybe it was because of personnel shortages... or because I was doing a job that was quite technical.”

At that time Hu made his first approach to the enterprise union. The union arranged for him to be tested again, and he failed two out of six tests. With his white blood cell count down, he asked the union to help him apply for an occupational illness diagnosis. The enterprise union responded positively, but the management of the company refused the request.

They said there had been a misunderstanding, and that it was just an “occupational contraindication condition” [implying that workplace environmental factors were causing a pre-existing condition to worsen].

Hu reckoned management were trying to wriggle out of their obligations to provide occupational disease compensation so he got another test in the provincial capital, Shenyang, where all three indicators were found to be alarmingly low, and an occupational illness physician told him that:

I should immediately stop doing all work and go to hospital, or I would be putting my life in danger. At the time of my platelets count had reached 7g. A normal person has 100-300g.

Hu was taken to a general hospital, because, he said, local occupational illness hospitals could only carry out tests and did not have advanced equipment that could perform a bone marrow biopsy.

Charitable payments or loans?

After many months of neglect of his condition and missed opportunities for immunotherapy, Hu finally began to get serious treatment. He was sent to a specialist hospital in Tianjin for an antithymocyte globulin (ATG) treatment course which lasted three to four months. The management of CHPANC agreed to pay a lump sum of 300,000 yuan to cover this and other medical expenses. But, to Hu’s amazement, it turned out the company, which had initially offered to pay his medical costs as long as he dropped his application for occupational illness compensation, meant this as a loan, for which he was obliged to write out promissory notes. Said Hu:

They have people who understand legal matters. Perhaps they are afraid that I will get a diagnosis of occupational illness. Basically, the company wanted to deal with the matter through a private settlement and cover their backsides.

Most of that 300,000 yuan has already gone and Hu only has 80,000 yuan left for three monthly reviews and other treatment.

Later, the remainder will be placed directly in my account with the company, and it will include medicine costs. Now I need medicine for rehabilitation. I have to take certain drugs to maintain my health. In a month I spend 1,000 yuan on one bottle of pills and I need two, so that’s around 2,000 yuan. If you add in liver medication and something for the stomach, as there are side-effects, that’s around 3,000 yuan a month in drug expenses.

Asked why he had been so slow in applying for verification of occupational illness, Hu said his condition had been too urgent to worry about it, and he was advised by doctors to “leave that for the moment.” He belatedly launched the application process in December 2012, but it has been held up for a year pending delivery of a report from the Tianjin hospital. Under the occupational disease regulations, there are no restrictions on the timing of such applications, he said, but the disability evaluation has to be completed within a two-year time frame.

Official procedures just create more problems

Getting the diagnosis is a very bothersome matter.  You need to have a team of experts on the scene, to look at the environment you are working in. I heard that this raises issues of internal confidentiality and they cannot open up my workshop. If a date for visit is given, they will change the schedule, move production to another time, and leave the machines switched off that day. The inspectors were probably in on the act… And there is just one of me, right? Now I am worried that the company has a lot of power and will try something on with the doctors that do the evaluation of occupational injury.

Hu was recuperating at the company’s employee dormitory. He is still receiving his basic salary of 1,725 yuan (compared with a local minimum wage of 1,300 yuan) though if he were getting the full package including overtime and various benefits, it would be more than 3,000 yuan a month. The company also met its food and lodging payment obligations when he was hospitalised but they still refused to acknowledge the occupational nature of his condition. The company did however give him a one-time payment of several thousand yuan to help him out and support his elderly father. Hu has no siblings and his mother has already passed away.

Hu said he wanted to remain an employee of the company rather than seek termination of his contract, which might give him a substantial one-time lump sum compensation payment:

Of course I want to stay with the company. This disease is not something that can be completely healed. In the later stages, there are going to be some long tough times. I will not be able to do heavy labour later.

Hu was concerned that if even his illness was officially verified, the company would still find some way to terminate his employment contract and avoid their legal obligations.

They simply do not follow the law. They think they are offering me humanitarian help, that’s the way they look at it. But basically they are not fulfilling their legal responsibilities. They think that by lending the money they are helping me with my household difficulties.

Throughout this ordeal, Hu has received support from a local television station legal affairs program, the local trade union, as well as well-known worker activist Zhang Haichao. Hu is now talking to a legal aid centre in Dalian about the prospects of filing a lawsuit against the company.

This interview with Hu Fengchao was first broadcast on Radio Free Asia's 劳工通讯 in eight episodes in December 2013.

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