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China: Development's Toll on Laborers

A second wave of pneumoconiosis cases has been reported among drilling and blasting workers in the southern city of Shenzhen.

An article in Beijing Youth Daily reports 119 suspected pneumoconiosis cases among migrant workers from Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province who had engaged in drilling and blasting work in Shenzhen, Guangdong.  This is the second such case this year in Shenzhen among migrant workers from Hunan, province.  In May 100 drilling and blasting workers were suspected to be suffering from the illness.

Pneumoconiosis is a terminal illness contracted through the inhalation of dust particles such as iron, coal, asbestos, or carbon dust.  It’s known as an occupational lung disease due to the frequency of cases found among construction and mining workers.

Beijing Youth Daily reports that 26 of the 119 workers were recognized by their employer as having a “work relationship” with the company and received medical examinations.  Of the 26, four were confirmed to be suffering from pneumoconiosis; four were diagnosed as being in the initial stages of the disease.

As for the remaining 93 employees who are thought to be suffering from the disease, a report on China Broadcasting Network concludes many workers receive no health care benefits because they are refused formal contracts with their employers.

深圳一部分农民工,从上世纪90年代开始便在深圳的各大建筑工地从事孔洞爆破工作,至今已有10多年。由于常期吸入大量粉尘,多人经普通医院检查被疑患有尘肺病,但职业病医院却拒绝给他们做进一步检查和治疗。原因是,这些工人没有劳动合同,用人单位也不给他们出具职业病检查委托书。

A portion of migrant workers in Shenzhen have been doing blasting work at construction sites around the city since the beginning of the 1990s.  Due to long term inhalation of dust particles, many people are thought to be suffering from pneumoconiosis after receiving routine health examinations, yet they have been denied further examination or treatment.  The reason for this is some workers don’t have labor contracts and employers won’t grant them a letter a referral for occupational disease examinations.

A report at Sina.com gives an account of these migrant workers and the development of their trade and subsequent illness in Shenzhen.

维权代表钟家泉、向杰等人说,他们从上世纪90年代就在深圳打钻搞爆破,这种工作收入较其他工种高、技术要求低,所以他们通过老乡介绍结伴而来。由于当时防护措施不到位,很多人患上尘肺病而没有觉察,近几年陆续发病,已经有3人死亡。

Zhong Jiaquan and Xiang Jie—representatives for maintaining legal rights—said they have engaged in drilling an blasting work in Shenzhen since the 1990s, which was higher in pay and less technically demanding.  They have been coming in groups [to Shenzhen] through hometown connections.  Due to the lack of thoroughness in safety measures, many unknowingly contracted pneumoconiosis and have been continuously falling ill.  Three people have died already.

An article at 21CN.com gives a direct account of working conditions as a drilling and blasting worker in Shenzhen.

炮工们说,这份工作诱惑力太大,一天能赚一两百块钱,但工作环境却十分恶劣:“这基本上都是拿命换的钱。到了8米、9米、10米以下的深孔,能见度很低,没有排风系统,灰完全排不上来。我们一般要工作将近10个小时左右,等孔中的炮眼全部打好以后,下面的石粉至少有十厘米厚。”在井下十多米的深度干活,人上来以后,感觉鼻孔、耳朵里面都被灰硬硬地塞住了,咳嗽咳出来的痰都带着灰、泥土。

Explosive workers say the work, which earns 100-200 RMB per day, is too appealing.  But the working conditions are appalling: ‘This is basically cashing in your life for money.  Upon reaching eight to ten meters underground, visibility is very low, there is no ventilation system, there is no way around the dust.  We usually work for around ten hours, until all the blasting is complete and a layer of rock dust at least ten centimeters thick has settled below us.’  After working ten meters below the earth, they come up feeling as if their nose and ears have been packed tightly with dust.  They cough up sputum laced with dust and dirt.

The Chinese Labor Contract Law of 2007 requires employers to sign contracts with employees within one month of hiring or else pay double the monthly wage.  Whether or not the workers denied “occupational disease examinations” were paid double wages was not reported.

An article in the Worker’s Daily analyzes the current situation of such migrant workers in Shenzhen.

如今,用人单位处于强势地位,相当多的劳动者无法冒着失掉工作的风险,要求用人单位与自己签订劳动合同,而用人单位拒签劳动合同则是为了逃避法律责任。从深圳的这起事件中我们可以看到,尽管有了劳动法、劳动合同法,但在一些无良用人单位的面前,由于法律没有得到严格执行,劳动者是多么的无奈。

Today employers have the upper hand.  A relatively large number of laborers have no method of escaping danger on the job and request their employers to sign contracts.  The employers refuse to sign contracts in order to shrink their legal responsibility.  We can see from this case in Shenzhen that although there are labor laws and labor contract laws, due to these laws not beening strictly carried out, the laborer is quite helpless before the non-wholesome employer.

In an article in Southern Weekend, Liang Wendao discusses the circumstances surrounding pneumoconiosis among poverty stricken migrant workers.  He writes that the burden of the disease exceeds the physical ailments and takes a hefty psychological toll on its victims.

这么痛苦的过程如果用财务的角度来理解的话,就是“欠债”二字。得了肺尘病的工人最担心的通常不是自己还能活多久,而是死后家人的负担有多重。有些人考虑过自我了结,可是一想到已经累下的欠债,念及寡女自此之后工作只为还债,幼儿交不出学费上学,他就不能安心寻死了。怎么办?他们一次又一次地上访,希望政府出面协助。假如政府爱莫能助,他们就只好回到那个死不成但也活不了的困境了。

Understanding such a painful process from a financial perspective can be done with one word: debt.  Workers who have contracted pneumoconiosis are not always most worried about how much longer they will live, but about the weight of burden on family members after they die.  Some consider taking their own lives but as soon as they think about their accumulating [medical] debt, the repaying of the debt by their widows, the inability of their children to pay school fees, they cannot take their lives without worry.  What can they do?  They make one appeal after another hoping the government will come to their aid.  Supposing the government has its hands tied, they have no choice but to return to a situation where they can neither live nor die.

Liang finds the word “mortal price” to be thrown around too easily by those with no intention of paying it.  He asks who it is that determines the “price of development” and why it is the migrant worker pays this price when they in fact reap so few of the fruits of development.

曾有一位政府工作人员对着聚集上访的工人说:“这是历史的欠账,是发展的必然代价。”这是所有报道里头最刺痛我的一句话,虽然我对这种说法十分熟悉。这么多年以来,我们一而再、再而三地听到有人把枯竭的水源、污染了的土地,乃至于贫富差距的恶化形容为“发展的代价”;但我还是第一回听见官员将一群待死之人也说成是“发展的代价”。

A government employee once said to a gathering crowd of laborers: ‘This is history’s debt.  This is the inevitable price of development.’  Although extremely familiar with this sort of wording, this report stung me more than any other.  For so many years we’ve heard the drying of our water resources, the polluting of our earth, even the widening of the gap between rich and poor, used to describe the ‘price of development.’  But this was the first time I had heard an official call a crowd—who were waiting to die—the price of development.

Although Shenzhen has been a global hotspot for construction over the past thirty years, drilling and blasting work has been commonplace in mid to large scale cities across China.  Construction companies can only hope that similar cases of pneumoconiosis don’t develop throughout the country as China moves into a forth decade of rapid development.

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