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Workers behind China’s economic miracle are paying a heavy price

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: (Published 30 April 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c2396
  1. Jane Parry
  1. 1Hong Kong

    A conservative estimate of the number of workers in China with occupation related pneumoconiosis puts the figure at 1 million, many of whom are migrant workers, and who are routinely denied access to compensation, says a report by the Hong Kong based non-government organisation, China Labour Bulletin.

    The report used official figures and press reports from state media to estimate the number of workers in China with pneumoconiosis, including black lung disease among coal workers and silicosis caused by prolonged exposure to mineral and metal dust in the construction and jewellery industries.

    Together the two conditions account for nearly 90% of new reported cases of pneumoconiosis. Much of the official data, however, exclude migrant workers, who are often employed without formal contracts.

    Workers who try to pursue claims for compensation face considerable hurdles, and these are exacerbated for migrant workers, explains China Labour Bureau’s communications director, Geoffrey Crothall. “In most cases a migrant worker will go home if they are ill and will try to solve the problem with traditional Chinese medicine or over the counter medication. Many will not even bother to go back to where they got the disease because they can’t afford to make the journey.

    “Even if they do, they are met with huge obstacles getting their foot in the door because the hospital diagnostic centres want to see a contract and a diagnosis from another district cannot be used to initiate administrative proceedings for compensation.”

    Many of the workers who spoke to researchers from the bulletin were convinced that the local hospitals were bought off by employers to give an inconclusive or even false diagnosis, which prevented them from pursuing compensation, Crothall says.

    A case in point is a worker at an abrasive metals factory, in Xinmi, Henan province. When he developed severe respiratory symptoms he was diagnosed with pneumoconiosis by hospitals in the provincial capital Zhengzhou and Beijing, but was diagnosed with tuberculosis by the clinic where he was sent by his employer. In July 2009 the worker took the drastic step of voluntarily undergoing open chest surgery which proved the diagnosis of pneumoconiosis.

    The lack of protection for workers, particularly migrants, has been recognised by the authorities. In the same week that the bulletin’s report came out, China’s Ministry of Health also reported that migrant workers bore the brunt of occupational diseases facing workers. In 2009 there were 14 495 new cases of pneumoconiosis diagnosed, with more than half coming from coal mining, metal alloy, and metallurgy industries, said a report in the state run China Daily newspaper.

    Yang Zhiming, vice-minister of human resources and social security, was also reported as saying that poor working conditions are one of the most serious threats to migrant workers’ rights and recommended safety training for migrant workers in high risk industries as well as increased supervision of enterprises to ensure that workers received contracts.

    “In our report we acknowledge the fact that the government is taking this issue seriously and these latest statements seem to back that up,” says Crothall. “We very much hope that they are good to their word and implement these policy changes.”


    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c2396


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