China Labour Series: The Tragedies of Occupational Disease Victims

Author: Eddie Chow

It is frequently reported that workers suffer from occupational diseases as they have worked in vile working conditions without adequate protective measures. Occupational leukaemia, caused by exposure to toxic chemicals is the second leading killer among occupational diseases. For example, Zou Xiuhua suffers from leukaemia after working less than two years in Johnson Electric’s plant in Shenzhen City. Chen (not his real name), 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, leukaemia, hand-arm vibration syndrome and other diseases in relation to occupational exposures to toxic chemicals or job nature are categorised as occupational diseases. Xiuhua, a worker from Johnson Electric who suffers from leukaemia, reflects that the factory was equipped with bad ventilation system and provided its workers inadequate protective measures. Workers received only earplugs and gloves, which could not protect them from toxic chemicals. Xiuhua used 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 give workers face masks but the factory refused, saying it had not enough face masks. In the end, Xiuhua contracted leukaemia.
When he was undergoing his second chemotherapy, he met four other leukaemia 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 in getting their occupational diseases verified. The factory refused to provide materials for their diagnosis and the relevant government departments turned them down while they demanded the report of working environment. Even at the appraisal of their occupational diseases, the employer would distort the facts so that the official reports could not show that workers had contacted toxic chemicals at work, and therefore workers cannot hold their employer accountable.
In the polishing department of Qilitian Golf Articles (Shenzhen) Co., workers suffer from hand-arm vibration syndrome from polishing golf cues and got leukaemia through inhaling toxic detergent over a long time, like Chen. In a workshop on occupational diseases organised by the HKCTU, workers described their working conditions and hardship in getting compensated.
Workers pointed out that Qilitian 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, as its way to avoid responsibility. When the government recognized the workers’ occupational diseases, the employer would use all sorts of ridiculous reasons, such as lack of manpower in the hospital, to prevent other workers from getting medical check-ups.  As his employer refused to provide the necessary information, Chen could not get his occupational disease appraised. He is determined to hold the employer accountable, not only because he cannot afford the expensive treatments, but he cannot allow the employer to walk away freely from its responsibility.
Until now, there have been hundreds of cases of hand-arm vibration syndrome in Guangdong Province. Apart from workers in Qilitian, some million metal-polishing workers are also affected from this disease. Some factories even have closed down to avoid compensation. These victims with hand-arm vibration syndrome and occupational leukaemia, like Xiuhua and Chen, are hopelessly trapped in the process of getting their legal compensation and medical expenses covered. Brands, to uphold their corporate social responsibility, should proactively supervise the working conditions and labour rights in their suppliers’ factories and refuse to make business with exploitative suppliers. Furthermore, 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 to pay for all necessary compensation and medical fees, as required by law