x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Crippled by the job, thousands of Chinese workers struggle for redress

More than one million Chinese people are suffering from dust-related diseases that are fatal, and many die before receiving compensation.

The average lifespan for a worker diagnosed with pneumoconiosis is just six years.
The average lifespan for a worker diagnosed with pneumoconiosis is just six years.

BEIJING // Yang Renbing is still in his 30s, but already his body has suffered damage from which it will not recover. For more than a decade, he worked in a jewellery factory in southern China where he inhaled dust that has permanently damaged his lungs.

Mr Yang, 34, is one of what campaigners estimate to be more than one million people to have developed an often deadly condition called pneumoconiosis as a result of his working conditions. Some are miners, others such as Mr Yang worked in gemstone factories, yet more were employed in quarries. What links them, as well as having an irreversible and often fatal condition, is their difficulties in obtaining compensation.

Mr Yang began work at the jewellery factory in Guangdong province in 1993, and was sacked in 2005 after his pneumoconiosis began to manifest itself as fatigue and shortness of breath. He had an official diagnosis of occupational disease in 2007, but is still to be compensated for the harm caused to his lungs, which have become inflamed and fibrous. "We need help urgently," he said, after describing how he had been sent from Guangdong to his home province, Sichuan, to obtain a diagnosis of occupational disease, only to not have the diagnosis recognised by his company because it was from the wrong province. Then he was told he could not be compensated because he left the company too long ago.

Legal costs have put Mr Yang thousands of dollars in debt, a significant sum given his family's only income is his wife's 1,500 yuan (Dh807) monthly salary. According to the Hong Kong organisation China Labour Bulletin (CLB), a workers rights group, tens of thousands are struggling for compensation. "Entire communities have been devastated by this," said Geoffrey Crothall, a CLB editor. While one worker who voluntarily underwent surgery last year to prove he had an occupational lung disease was awarded 615,000 yuan (Dh331,000) compensation, the organisation said the system was stacked against the individual, with countless ways for employers to evade their responsibility to pay compensation.

Since they never had a contract, many workers have lost out because they could not prove they worked for a company. Countless staff have been sacked once their condition became apparent, the group said, because when they are no longer employed by the company, compensation is harder to secure. Others are said to be pressured into accepting a few thousand yuan as compensation, an award of little value as the condition requires continual treatment.

In Guangdong, a key area for gemstone factories and mining, government regulations meant workers could only be given a diagnosis of occupational illness within two years of leaving the job said to have caused the condition, and then had a further year to get compensation. But campaigners say pneumoconiosis sometimes only develops several years after exposure to dust. Mr Crothall said there had been improvements to the compensation system - if three colleagues sign to say an individual worked for a company, that can now prove an employee-employer relationship - but still the process remained "very complicated".

If an employer contests each of the four steps of a claim for compensation - an official diagnosis, classification of it as a work-related condition by the social security authorities, disability assessment and calculation of compensation - he said the process takes at least four-and-a-half years, but is more likely to be a decade. "The average lifespan when you're diagnosed is six years," he said. "Very many people die before they get any compensation at all", although the family could pursue compensation.

"Local authorities do not enforce the law and they do not put pressure on employers to pay compensation. They are more concerned with the letter of the law and to protect local interests." In the CLB's recently published a report, The Hard Road: Seeking Justice for the Victims of Pneumoconiosis in China, the group called for the compensation process to be simplified. Courts should accept that cases of pneumoconiosis are work-related, the group said, and government committees should be set up to negotiate with employers on behalf of sufferers. Local governments should also have a registration system for those at risk from exposure to high levels of dust, and staff should be educated about the dangers.

Dr Wang Xueyan, the director of the allergy department at Beijing Shijitan Hospital, a leading diagnosis and treatment centre, described pneumoconiosis as causing "a lot of pain". She said it was vital for people working in dusty conditions to wear masks. The CLB said employers concerned about compensation demands sometimes provided masks, although often staff had to pay for them. There are signs the central government wants to do more. In a statement released to local media, the ministry of health said it would "accelerate" the setting up of a code to prevent occupational disease and would "try to establish a long-term policy and strengthen supervision".

"To be fair to the central government, they are paying more attention to this," Mr Crothall said. "But we have the perennial problem of national law [that] says, 'You have to do this,' but the local government ignores them." @Email:dbardsley@thenational.ae