Industrial accident victim fights for others

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 11:03pm


Hunan migrant worker Chen Yongfa, 32, lost his right arm in an industrial accident at a Shenzhen fabric factory 13 years ago, and the unscrupulous boss ran away. After winning a three-year legal battle for compensation, he's now a labour rights activist and collaborates with Oxfam to help tens of thousands of migrant workers who have suffered industrial injuries.How did you get involved in labour rights?

I started to realise how important labour rights were when a decade-old machine, without any safety shutdown function, swallowed my right arm at the age of 20. The machine was shipped to the mainland after being phased out by factories in Taiwan. The Hong Kong owner of the small fabric factory, which had about 20 employees, ran away after the industrial injury and it took me three years to receive compensation through a lawsuit. I was so depressed. I didn't even want to walk out of the ward because you start to realise you're 'different' from other people. Without help from disabled migrant workers, it would have taken much longer for me to recover mentally from the injury. I decided to join a working group under Oxfam that advocated labour rights and assisted injured workers in Shenzhen. My colleagues and I have helped more than 1,000 disable workers since 2002. In 2009, I started a charity project called the 'Left-hander's soya milk shop', which helps other disabled migrant workers start their own business with just a small amount of money. We provide them a franchise, free training and interest-free loans.

Are migrant workers often the victims of industrial accidents in Guangdong?

The situation is serious although I can't give you an exact number of casualties. A decade ago when I lost my right arm, there were about 10,000 migrant worker who became disabled every year through industrial accidents. Walk into any hospital in Shenzhen and you'll find so many workers with their arms or legs amputated, some are even forced to sleep in corridors because there are not enough beds. There are many reasons migrant workers are at such high risk. Many are fatigued because of the overtime, often working at night. Much of the equipment is old and lacks safety features. The management often does not offer safety training and the government monitoring is lax. For example, I would not have lost my arm if the boss had used a new machine with infrared capabilities that can detect a foreign object in the device and shut it down. Many low-cost and labour-intensive manufacturers aren't willing to change to new machines, which can cost five times more than the old ones. One of the few bright spots is that more manufacturers have started to pay for statutory government insurance covering industrial injury. It costs some 20 yuan per worker per month. The insurance covers all of an injured worker's medical treatments. But many bosses evaded paying the fee until recently. I didn't have access to the insurance when I had my accident 13 years ago, and was in a predicament to raise money to pay for medical bills.

How can a disabled migrant worker benefit from your charity scheme?

The 'Left-hander's soya milk shop' project aims to help disabled migrant workers who have usually lost their arms through industrial accidents, leaving them unfit for most positions in many workplaces. Our soya milk machines can be operated with one hand and this helps disabled workers rebuild their confidence. Our soya milk shop located in the Baoan district gives victims a temporary job before they rejoin society and the workforce. We provide up to three months of free training on how to run the shop. We once had up to seven franchised soya milk shops in Shenzhen and Dongguan , but they shut down because of rising production costs and rent, as well as harsh competition from similar shops. Priced at 1 to 2 yuan a cup, our soya milk shop in Baoan used to sell 800 cups a day, which doesn't give us much profit.

Have they received any aid from the government?

Very little. Financial aid provided by Shenzhen authorities is only given to permanent residents. Almost all disabled workers who suffered an industrial injury in Shenzhen don't have permanent residency there. For example, disabled people can apply to the government for start-up funds to establish a small business, but it is only open to permanent residents. There are very few schemes to help disabled workers rejoin society and maintain a livelihood after their injury. Migrant workers have suffered so much for the country's economic growth, but they're often abandoned by the bosses and society if they have had accidents. It's a bloody gross domestic product.

Have you been harassed by authorities because of your work?

Yes, many NGOs that focus on labour rights are harassed by authorities as officials fear foreign-funded and rights lobby groups could organise large-scale strikes, protests or trigger social unrest. When I worked for Oxfam, I was often invited for 'coffee' with state security officials who wanted to be apprised of our activities. As far as I know, at least five labour NGOs have been forced to shut down by the Shenzhen government between February and June, although Guangdong said it had made registration of NGOs much easier last month. NGOs previously had to find a department to sponsor them before they were able to register. Rather than shut them down, Guangdong authorities should encourage more NGOs devoted to labour issues as there are 20 million to 30 millions migrant workers in the province. They're probably the only groups that provide help for disabled migrant workers who are forgotten by authorities.