Workers with pneumoconiosis determined to sue local government despite signing away their rights

10 July 2013

Four years ago, a group of stone workers suffering from the deadly lung disease pneumoconiosis petitioned their local government for assistance. Their employer, Guo'an Silica Co. had closed down, leaving them with no insurance and no money to pay their mounting medical bills.

The workers had been employed primarily as stone crushing machine operators, working in thick clouds of dust for hours on end. One 59-year-old former employee with stage-three pneumoconiosis told the Beijing Times that the atmosphere inside the plant was “like being in a flour mill, a foul, stinking flour mill.”

The local government in Dengfeng, in the central province of Henan, eventually agreed to give the 26 workers one-off payments of between 40,000 and 50,000 yuan in charitable relief but only on condition that they gave up their right to claim additional compensation from the government in the future.

The workers knew the amount offered was not nearly enough to pay their bills and support their families but they were in desperate need of help and so reluctantly agreed to sign.  In CLB’s latest research report Time to Pay the Bill: China’s obligation to the victims of pneumoconiosis, we estimate that the basic medical costs for pneumoconiosis patients in poor rural communities is around 10,000 yuan on average. Moreover, because the victim is usually the family’s sole breadwinner, the family probably has to spend another 10,000 yuan per year just on basic living expenses.

Sure enough, for the families for the Dengfeng workers, the money offered by the local government dried up very quickly. The Beijing Times talked to one the workers, 40-year-old Meng Junwei, whose body had been ravaged by the disease to such an extent that this 1.75 metre tall man now weighed just 48 kilograms. Every sentence he uttered was punctuated with a persistent cough. His wife also had stage-two pneumoconiosis, they had no money left for medical treatment and could just stay at home, waiting for death, the newspaper said.

Meng and several other workers filed arbitration complaints against their employer and administrative lawsuits against the local government but all to no avail. Even the high-profile intervention of pneumoconiosis rights activist Zhang Haichao in November last year failed to sway the authorities.

However, the workers are determined to carry on and to press the local government to provide them with the compensation they should be entitled to under China’s work-related injury and occupational disease regulations. Eighteen of the 26 workers filed a lawsuit at the Dengfeng Municipal Court on 13 May but the court has yet to issue a decision on the case.

The head of the township government’s judicial office Liu Zhiwei told the Beijing Times that the “inappropriate clauses” (欠妥条款) in the agreement signed by the workers had been corrected and apologised for. However he also claimed that the lack of a legal representative for the company, Guo’an Silica, and the workers lack of employment contracts meant that resolving the compensation issue would not be easy.

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