There seems to be an unwritten rule that whenever the Chinese government introduces new policies and regulations to protect workers, unscrupulous bosses will always find a way around the law.
Mine owners, for example, have traditionally avoided paying compensation for occupational disease by refusing to sign employment contracts with workers but one devious mine owner went a step further and demanded that miners, who had already contracted pneumoconiosis whilst working at the mine, sign a contract absolving the mine of any liability for future claims related to occupational disease compensation.
Gu Chaoxin, an illiterate migrant worker who fell victim to this scam, talked to CLB Director Han Dongfang about life in the Liujiang coal mine in Sichuan and his attempts to get at least some compensation for his debilitating and life threatening condition.
Gu first began working at the Liujiang coal mine in Dazhu county back in 2003. It was a relatively large coal mine employing around 500 men, with around 200, including Gu, working underground. For four years, Gu worked eight to nine hours every day raking out coal after blasting and drilling operations.
We used hand tools... After you had raked out the coal, it was piled on a conveyor belt. This produced high concentrations of dust. The dust hung suspended in the air during the process. They relied entirely on natural ventilation, not mechanical, and it was bad at the bottom. At that time, we did not have masks or other protective equipment.
At no time during this stint were the underground workers given health checks. Gu said he had no employment contract with the mine management either, since it was “not the trend. There was no established practice at the time. We had not heard anything about contracts.”
In 2007, a group of workers including Gu got into a dispute with the management over low pay. “We were told by everyone in management that the salary is fixed,” Gu said. In the end, he and his colleagues refused to work underground and were dismissed. They were given no health checks on leaving, in contravention of Chinese labour law.
Return to the mine
Gu returned to his home village to plant crops and rear pigs. Unlike his former colleagues, he remained at home the whole time, staying away from the migrant labour trail completely, until 2009 when his old team leader got in touch and asked him to return to Liujiang. He said the coal mine was expanding its operations and was short of workers.
A group of six or seven former workers went back. Gu, then 46 years old, was asked to become team leader himself. The management said to him, “you haven’t been to school, but you do have the skills to do this job.” This time, before they started working, there was a health check — the only health check he was to receive in all his time at the mine — and it revealed “abnormalities” in his lungs. Gu was told by his bosses, without any formal diagnosis, that this was pneumoconiosis, but that his lungs were only “lightly” affected. No further investigation was made.
Before taking him back on, the coal mine management had Gu and his colleagues sign an agreement absolving them of any liability should they develop pneumoconiosis in future. Gu did not fully understand what he was signing, and agreed to the terms. The mine had effectively thwarted any compensation claims in the future.
Once he had signed the agreement, Gu was sent to work underground again, in spite the obvious health risks and in a clear contravention of China’s Pneumoconiosis Prevention and Treatment Regulations, which requires that workers who have or who are suspected of having the ailment be placed in a dust-free workplace. In fact, Gu was assigned to work in an even dustier environment than before, involved in blasting operations and underground coal transport.
We were making props [to support the walls]. When we had done that, they excavated the coal. After the coal was taken out, there was more work with explosives, drilling… Whenever they were getting the coal out, there was dust. It was suspended in the air and did not disperse. There was no point in waiting for it to disperse, it got everywhere.
Again, ventilation was inadequate and although the workers were given masks this time, they were ordinary cloth masks, not professional equipment. Gu estimated that 80 percent of the 200 or so workers underground at the Liujiang mine had contracted pneumoconiosis.
Gu continued working there under these conditions for several years, until 2013, when the mine management suddenly barred him and around nine of his colleagues from going underground, citing tightened government occupational health regulations, which now required that Gu’s group be covered by an insurance plan. Because the mine management could not get cover for Gu and the others, they were sent home. Of these dismissed workers, few resisted. Some left to work elsewhere, feeling that there was no hope of compensation, or of bringing the management of the mine to account for endangering their health.
These redundant workers were not even given a final health check on leaving, as is required by Chinese law. So the men had to get themselves tested at their own initiative and expense, at the Dazhu People’s Hospital, which confirmed that they had lung problems. But, Gu said, the hospital still did not “dare” to diagnose an occupational illness, or confirm the extent to which the disease had progressed. Instead, it referred them to the local Epidemic Prevention Station. Only when the workers started complaining online did the mine finally take responsibility for testing.
Gu and two other men were then taken to the local centre for disease control on 3 April 2013. They were told that the test results would be available within three days, but, Gu said, members of the management picked up the results instead and did not tell him what his results were. Then the workers were then told that they would need to undergo a second round of testing on 30 July.
The mine boss insisted that the workers’ disease must have been contracted elsewhere and at an unspecified “earlier” date and that the miners had no rights in this matter. The boss was only prepared to “make a onetime payment as a humanitarian gesture in appreciation of our help. Our boss is a sly old fox,” Gu said.
As things stand, Gu said he has no plans to seek out work. His health was poor and he did not want to risk further deterioration. Gu said he had two main demands: compensation, and payment for a lung lavage. Four other workers were in the same position, he said.
Reviewing the case, Han commented
What I don’t understand is why the mine management, which knew that you had pneumoconiosis, could have asked you to go back down there and work underground in a job involving exposure to dust. Weren’t you taking a huge risk? If you had already contracted it and you went back to work in that kind of environment, the disease would have progressed quickly.
Despite the bosses’ efforts to evade responsibility, Han felt the miners still had a good case. But in order to win, Gu would need to prove was that he had not contracted his pneumoconiosis whilst working away from the Liujiang mine. Han urged Gu to get written verification from his village council that he had remained in his village during all of the two years he was absent from the coal mine. This would clear the way for official recognition of occupational illness and assessment of disability.
Gu said however that “I have no money to launch a lawsuit. With college fees to pay for my two children, the money has run out.” Han urged him to get the help of one of his sons, now working in an engineering enterprise, in online research: “he cannot refuse to help his stricken father who ruined his health in the coal mines so that he could go to college.” Han also offered to help get free legal advice for Gu to prepare a lawsuit.
This interview with Gu Chaoxin was first broadcast on Radio Free Asia's 劳工通讯 in six episodes in May 2013. For more information about China’s pneumoconiosis epidemic please see Time to Pay the Bill: China’s obligation to the victims of pneumoconiosis.