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.


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 gives an account of these migrant workers and the development of their trade and subsequent illness in Shenzhen.


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 gives a direct account of working conditions as a drilling and blasting worker in Shenzhen.


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.


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.


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.


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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