When workers die in a village called Happiness

15 July 2014

I live in a village called Happiness (幸福村) but no one in my family is happy. My father's body is still in the mortuary 21 days after the car crash that took his life.

Zhang Lihua's microblog, 18 April 2013

After decades of hard manual labour, Zhang Jiangdong was looking forward to a well-deserved retirement. The 54-year-old construction worker's two daughters were happily married and pursuing their careers in coastal cities and his son was studying to be a civil engineer in nearby Wuhan. Zhang himself still earned around 100-200 yuan a day working on construction projects and he could also pocket a little extra cash every harvest season from the family’s dozen acres of land. But Zhang’s hopes of a comfortable retirement were shattered on the morning of 29 March 2013. As he had done every morning for the last four years, Zhang got on to an unlicensed agricultural vehicle, along with 15 colleagues, to go to work. The vehicle’s unlicensed driver was going too fast and lost control. The vehicle rolled over, killing Zhang and three others instantly. Another worker died later in hospital and the survivors were left with various levels of disability for the rest of their lives.

Zhang's grieving children rushed back to their hometown the very next day, only to be cornered by members of the “special taskforce” set up by local officials overnight, urging them to cremate the body and sign compensation agreements offered by the government “for humanitarian reasons.” Zhang’s family refused the deal and was soon confronted by a tight-knit network of vested interests and corrupt local government officials.

The younger daughter, Zhang Lihua, gave up her career in order to pursue justice for her late father and in May 2014, she talked to China Labour Bulletin Director Han Dongfang about her family's continuing battle against the local government.

Immediately after the 29 March accident, the local officials said that the first family to accept the deal on offer “would be awarded extra compensation and have their funeral expenses waived.” When the Zhang’s asked exactly what had happened to cause the accident, the officials insisted that the unlicensed driver was the sole culprit and that “there was no point making trouble.” As a punishment for asking too many questions, the Zhangs were only offered 150,000 yuan in compensation, while other families received compensation of up to 580,000 yuan:

It's either 150,000 yuan or nothing, they said. In addition, we were asked to forfeit our right to pursue any legal action or complain to the government authorities.

The Village Party Secretary threatened all our relatives to get them to persuade us to cremate the body... When we disagreed, the traffic police told us that they would do it for us. It was right after my father died. The guy told us he was just taking orders from the mayor.

Operating above the law

Section14 of the Work-Related Injury Insurance Regulations stipulates that employees who die in traffic accidents on their way to or from work are entitled to work-related death compensation. The matter of dispute in this particular case, however, was who Zhang's employer actually was?

Zhang worked for an independent contractor named, Yang Hua, who had subcontracted the road construction project from Zhongxiang Municipal Road Engineering Co. Ltd. ( ZMRE). However, Yang was not a qualified subcontractor and as such ZMRE should have been held legally liable for the accident and be obligated to pay work-related death compensation. Indeed, when the Zhang’s took the matter to arbitration on 10 July 2013, the arbitration committee affirmed that there was in fact a labour relationship between Zhang and ZMRE.

Moreover, this was not the first deadly accident involving ZMRE. Just nine months earlier in fact, on 13 June 2012, an agricultural vehicle carrying nine workers from a ZMRE worksite to their homes crashed killing three and injuring six. ZMRE was not prosecuted in any manner in this case and was able to carry on operating and subcontracting work on the 'Every Village Project' (村村通公路工程), a provincial government project designed to connect Hubei’s remoter villages. The project was jointly funded by the government and the local villages.

Zhang said it was common knowledge in the region that the local traffic bureau and four other local government departments had shares in ZMRE. The cousin of the of the company boss, Chen Hui, was reportedly the mayor's secretary. Chen was also said to be on very good terms with local officials and judges, and this was the reason, Zhang said, the government agreed to pick up the tab for the accident:

All the compensation has been paid out of the treasury. The government has been paying the million-dollar bill for the... reckless profiteering of this private corporation.

ZMRE never gave an answer to the bereaved families nor did it offer any compensation itself. When the Zhangs finally reached Chen Hui, the boss of ZMRE:

He was only willing to offer compensation in kind by outsourcing projects to us... He was very careful to call it "compensation" instead of "damages". He said we could earn tens of thousands of yuan from a project and that is all we could get from him.

An alliance of local interests

The family failed to reach an agreement with the company and then the tide quickly turned against the Zhangs. ZMRE appealed the arbitration decision to the civil court in Zhongxiang where one of Chen's relatives was allegedly serving as the deputy chief. When the trial started, none of Zhang’s former colleagues were willing to testify in court that they had been working on a ZMRE project. They had all allegedly received death threats. The Zhongxiang court overturned the arbitration decision and ruled that there was no labour relationship between Zhang and ZMRE. The unlicensed driver, who could not afford to pay any compensation, was found wholly liable for the accident. The appeal court in the city of Jingmen upheld the decision of the Zhongxiang court but added that the Zhangs could alternatively argue that both the sub-contractor and ZMRE were liable for the accident.

The Zhangs appealed further to the Hubei Provincial People's High Court in Wuhan, which accepted the case on 9 April 2014. However, a few days later, the presiding judge called the family and told them that they stood little chance of winning and persuaded them to withdraw the case.

Given the obstacles they had faced and continued to face, Han Dongfang suggested that the family could change tactics and look into applying for a judicial review against the local authorities' inaction in monitoring ZMRE. Han pointed out that:

The local Labour Inspectorate did nothing and the same goes for the Bureau of Human Resources and Social Security. If they had looked into the lack of social insurance payments and employment contracts for those working on this government-funded project, it would have been much easier to establish labour relations.

Zhang Lihua agreed that holding the government authorities accountable could be the next step of the litigation process and was happy to accept pro bono legal assistance in filing an administrative lawsuit.

Zhang said the family was determined to carry on, not just to get justice for their father but to hold those responsible to account and to prevent more deaths from occurring in the future:

Whether it is the local government, ZMRE, or the sub-contractor, if they have had valued the lives of the workers in the first place... this tragedy could have been prevented. We do not want to see history repeating itself.

This interview with Zhang Lihua was first broadcast on Radio Free Asia's 劳工通讯 in nine episodes in May 2014. Following the interview, on 13 June 2014, Zhang posted on her Weibo @我是文集人that a team leader from the Central Inspection Commission had replied to her call for help saying that he had already referred the matter to the Supreme People's Procuratorate.

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