CLB assisted seven groups of jewellery workers from Guangdong province to seek full and proper compensation from their former employers after they contracted silicosis – a chronic and ultimately fatal disease – because the employers had failed to install proper ventilation equipment in the workplace. The lawyers whom CLB has arranged to pursue these cases have successfully negotiated surprisingly high compensation payments for several of the workers concerned, and several other collective compensation cases of this type are currently under litigation. The jewellery industry-related silicosis cases now being handled by CLB represent, however, only the tip of the iceberg: we have information on hundreds of other similar cases in numerous jewellery processing factories across Guangdong Province. For a detailed analysis of this issue, see our research report: Deadly Dust: The Silicosis Epidemic among Guangdong Jewellery Workers.
After being diagnosed with silicosis, the jewellery workers initially went either to the owners (most of whom are from Hong Kong) of the factories where they contracted the illness, or else to the local Labour and Social Security Department to seek redress and compensation for their plight. In most of the cases, they were offered not compensation, but rather non-cooperation, excuses and even threats. Since most silicosis sufferers were forced to leave work because of their severe health problems, factory owners often denied that they have ever employed them. In addition, workers who manage to obtain medical certification of their illnesses at a local occupational diseases center are sometimes later told that their diagnosis is invalid for purposes of their compensation claim. (According to Chinese law, such certification has to be provided by a medical clinic located in the same district as the factory involved; but most jewellery workers are rural migrant workers from distant provinces.) All too often, the local labour and social security authorities refuse to provide any assistance at all. In researching these cases, CLB found that most silicosis sufferers, after exhausting all available avenues of redress, tended to give up their quest for compensation and simply return to their hometowns or villages to spend their final years.
Many silicosis sufferers apply to their local Labour Dispute Arbitration Centres for orders to make their former employers pay out work-related injuries compensation, but few of them are happy with the outcome. Out of 19 silicosis-affected former jewellery workers known by CLB to have lodged such applications, the Arbitration Centres turned down 13 outright. Of the remaining six, only one worker received a favourable award. CLB is now assisting the remaining 18 workers to pursue their compensation claims through China's legal system, and we are hopeful that we can achieve a positive result for some if not all of them. Our strategy in these cases is not only to find lawyers to represent the affected workers in court litigation where appropriate, but also to generate public pressure on the Hong Kong jewellery factory owners concerned. In June 2005, for example, we held a press conference in Hong Kong at which several of the silicosis-stricken workers spoke out about their experiences. Through this and other initiatives, we have also brought pressure to bear on the factories' foreign buyers and the local jewellery manufacturers association.
One of our most high-profile silicosis compensation cases involved former workers from the Lucky Jewellery Company, a Hong Kong-owned factory in Huizhou, Guangdong Province. After several months of assistance from CLB's Case Intervention team in early 2005, three of the five silicosis sufferers who had previously been denied compensation by the company secured an out-of-court settlement of 200,000 yuan each. In addition, we were able to negotiate on behalf of the remaining two workers, who had earlier accepted a completely inadequate compensation sum, an additional 60,000 yuan each in compensation. In yet another such case adopted by CLB, two workers who contracted silicosis while working at the Perfect Gem Company's factory in Huizhou were eventually paid 230,000 Yuan each in compensation by the company's Hong Kong owner.