Workplace as battlefield
Chemical poisoning & carcinogens are killing workers quietly
It is often reported that workers suffer from occupational diseases as they have worked in vile working conditions without adequate protective measures. According to the ILO, 6,400 people are killed in industrial accidents or by occupational diseases each day, in other words, each year, occupational hazards cost the lives of 2.3 million workers globally. Such a death toll is compatible to a full-scale war.1Among the occupational hazards, occupational leukaemia, caused by exposure to toxic chemicals is the second leading killer in China. For example, Zou Xiuhua suffers from leukemia after working less than two years in Johnson Electric’s (HKG 0179) plant in Shenzhen City. Chen, another worker at Qilitian Golf Articles (Shenzhen) Co. shares the same fate, as he has worked with toxic chemicals over a long time.
According to the ILO standards and China’s Law on Prevention and Treatment of Occupational Diseases, leukemia in relation to occupational exposures to toxic chemicals or job nature is categorised as an occupational disease. In August 2015, Chinese media reported that in the past five years, cases of leukemia caused by occupational exposures to benzene have increased by 7.3 times in Guangdong Province.2 Huang Hanlin, the director of Guangdong Prevention and Treatment Centre of Occupational Diseases told Nanfang Daily, “20 millions of workers in Guangdong work in hazardous conditions. Statistics shows that cases of occupational diseases have gone up by 30% per year in recent years. The diagnosis of occupational cancers has increased each year. Currently, leukemia is the major diagnosis. If one works with benzene over a longer time, his chance to get leukemia is 26 times higher than others.” Benzene is used in many industries, such as shoe-making, in adhesive of packaging, furniture paints, in petrochemical industry where benzene is produced and even workers at the gas station may also be exposed to low doses of benzene 3.
Wang Qian, director of Hematology department of Tung Wah Hospital told Southern Metropolis Daily, “if benzene exists in one’s workplace or living place, it can enter the body through inhaling or skin contacts. It will poison the blood production system and lead to leukemia.”4
Xiuhua, a worker from Johnson Electric who suffers from leukaemia, revealed that the factory was equipped with bad ventilation system and poor protective measures. Workers were only given earplugs and gloves, which could not protect them from toxic chemicals. Xiuhua needed to work directly with motor oil, such a prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals increased his chance to contract occupational diseases. He had asked the factory to provide face masks but the factory refused, saying it had not enough face masks for workers. In the end, Xiuhua contracted leukemia.
When he was undergoing his second chemotherapy, he met three other leukemia victims from Johnson Electric and started to suspect their disease was work-related. He joined other workers to claim compensation from the factory, but encountered many obstructs during the process to get their occupational diseases verified. His two applications to appraise his occupational diseases were both rejected: firstly, the factory refused to provide materials for his diagnosis and the relevant government departments refused to provide the report of working environment; secondly, the Prevention and Treatment Centre of Occupational Diseases turned down his application to appraise his occupational diseases as he did not meet the requirement of “long term close contact with benzene”. A NGO organiser, known as Guo (pseudonym) found it unfair and helped Xiuhua to appeal. “The legal requirement of long term close contact with benzene is one year or above. Xiuhua has worked in Johnson Electric for 1 year 4 months. How could it say that Xiuhua is not qualified to go through the appraisal process?” After several appeals, Xiuhua’s case is now being handled by the Occupational Disease Diagnosis Appraisal Committee. Usually, it takes over a year for the Committee to deliver its judgement and it would make Xiuhua’s life very difficult. The factory knew that Xiuhua had not got his occupational disease appraised and it stopped paying for his medical treatment since April 2013. Xiuhua could only borrow money to continue his fight, now he has had a debt of over RMB 400,000.
Chen worked in the polishing department of Qilitian Golf Articles (Shenzhen) Co. and got leukemia through inhaling toxic detergent over a long time. In a workshop on occupational diseases organised by the HKCTU, workers like Chen described their working conditions and hardship in trying to hold their employers accountable. Workers pointed out that employers had neither provided training on work safety, nor informed them about the toxicity involved in their jobs. Before 2008, the factory only provided dust masks to workers, which are not respirators and could not protect them from inhaling toxic chemicals. Though the factory later improved its protective gears, it refused to compensate sick workers and was found to owe workers’ social insurance premiums. When workers fell sick and demanded to get their occupational diseases diagnosed, the factory would delay and refuse to go through the process. Instead, it lobbied the workers to make secret deals and used relocation, wages deduction to force workers to leave. Avoidance of responsibility is the factory’s only strategy.
Workers with occupational cancers, like Chen and Xiuhua, face countless obstructs when they fight for compensation and medical treatment. In order to uphold their corporate social responsibility, major brands should proactively supervise the working conditions and labour rights in their suppliers’ factories and refuse to make business with exploitative suppliers. The government should implement the Law on Prevention and Treatment of Occupational Diseases effectively, strengthen its supervision on working environment and safety training, conduct regular body checks for workers to ensure workers are informed of their occupational diseases as early as possible. The government should also make sure employers pay for all necessary compensation and medical fees. The HKCTU will continue to monitor and lobby through different channels, to urge multinational companies and listed companies to disclose its behaviour to the public. For example, labour conditions and work safety measures in Johnson Electric, a Hong Kong listed company, its subsidiaries and suppliers’ factories, should have been disclosed and been put in the public gaze.
1. ILO Director-General: Building a culture of prevention on occupational safety and health, retrieved from http://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/who-we-are/ilo-director-general/statements-and-speeches/WCMS_363178/lang--en/index.htm
2. Southern Metropolis Daily, 25 August 2015,“Growth in leukemia cases in Dongguan, a social worker discovered 85 cases of occupational leukemia in 7 years”「東莞白血病發病上升 社工7年發現85人患職業性白血病」, accessed from http://big5.southcn.com/gate/big5/dg.southcn.com/content/2015-08/25/content_131404277_2.htm
3. Nanfang Daily, 26 November 2014,“30% of annual growth in occupational diseases victims in Guangdong”「廣東職業病發病人數年增30%」, accessed from People's Net, http://gd.people.com.cn/BIG5/n/2014/1126/c123932-23012961.html
4. Same as footnote 2.