Of life and breath

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 September, 2004, 12:00am

Their employer is called 'Lucky Gems and Jewelry', but for Wu Houhua and a group of his gem-processing colleagues the job has turned out to be anything but.

You can't tell from Mr Wu's appearance, but the 34-year-old is gravely ill. He is suffering from silicosis, a preventable lung disease for which there is no cure and which authorities estimate affects more than 600,000 mainland workers. It is caused by the long-term inhalation of tiny particles and characterised by progressive fibrosis and a chronic shortness of breath. Without proper treatment it can deteriorate rapidly, ending in death.

Already in its second phase, the disease shows up as dense clouds on Mr Wu's chest X-ray.

He developed the condition while making jewellery ornaments from semi-precious stones like freshwater pearl and opal at a Hong Kong-owned factory in Huizhou, Guangdong.

'Every time I got out of the room where the stones were cut into pieces and polished, my body, from head to toes, would be covered by thick layers of powder. No protection gear was given, not even a face mask,' he said.

Mr Wu has already accepted the reality of his condition. 'Without medical treatment, I won't be able to see my wife and my 11-year-old daughter next year,' he said.

Lucky Gems and Jewelry is one of the largest processors of semi-precious stones in Asia. Its plant was formerly based in Shenzhen but moved to Huizhou in 1996.

More than 3,000 workers, mostly from remote provinces such as Hubei, Hunan and Sichuan, where Mr Wu comes from, worked inside the 50,000 sq ft factory.

Now dozens of them have silicosis. Mr Wu and 30 of his colleagues have tried suing the company for compensation but have been disappointed by the results.

The Huizhou Middle Court offered Mr Wu just 110,000 yuan.

'It is just not enough. I cannot work anymore because of the disease. How can I feed my family and get suitable medical treatment with such a small sum,' he said, adding that mainland law said he could get as much as 460,000 yuan.

The factory's owner, Wang Shenghua, in response, said he had already abided by the court's order and government procedures. 'To me, I will follow everything the court asks me to do and I have done my utmost already,' Mr Wang said.

The difference in the compensation amount that the court ordered and the sum that Wu and other workers believed that they should get under the law is due to a type compensation called 'continuous medical treatment fees', according to Dou Jiang, a mainland lawyer representing about a dozen of the workers.

'There are clear regulations in Chinese law on industrial injuries or on workers' compensation in terms of continuous medical treatment fees, which means the amount of money that a worker can receive to obtain incessant medical treatment after contracting the occupational disease,' Mr Dou said.

He said the law indicated that a worker would be entitled to continuous medical treatment if they could prove their condition required it and define what kind of treatment it would be and how much it would cost.

But Mr Dou said the Guangdong Provincial Hospital for Occupational Diseases Prevention and Control had not released documents saying what kinds of treatment the workers needed and how much they would cost.

'There are some technical problems. It is not easy to calculate the medical treatment fee one needs in treating this disease in a year,' Mr Dou said.

Silicosis is the leading occupational disease killer on the mainland. According to the Chinese Health Ministry, up to 2001, the number of Chinese with silicosis was 558,608 - a rise of 42 per cent compared with 1980. A total of 133,266 Chinese were reported to have been killed by the disease up to 2001. The figures are the highest for any country in the world.

The ministry forecast that the number of Chinese with the disease would rise to 630,000 in 2005 and 720,000 in 2015.

Mr Wang said he would not pay more compensation.

'How much are those continuous medical treatments? Even the court does not know,' Mr Wang said. He added that some workers just wanted to pressure him by using legal procedures, appeals and even protests direct to the government to get more money.

'I admit that we did not do enough in preventing such occupational disease in the very beginning. It was only in 2001 that we began to know that some of our workers had silicosis.' Mr Wang said that about eight workers had developed the disease, not the dozens that had claimed compensation.

'These people all worked for us for a long time. Without going to the court, I already compensated them, ranging from 70,000 to 200,000 yuan. The amounts are more than what the law required,' he said. 'Since then, many workers who have already left our factory for a few years return and asked for more compensation.'

Mr Wu now shares a 20 sq metre room with several other former Lucky Gem workers in an old tenement near the factory.

Another worker, Jiang Wenwei, vowed to fight for justice in court. 'I was 17 years old when I entered the factory. Now I'm 30 years old. I have worked there for 12 years,' said Mr Jiang, who was diagnosed with silicosis in May 2002. 'I have prepared to fight the court battle ever since.'

He said when he and about five other workers discovered they had the disease, they asked the factory to give them treatment.

'They refused,' he said. 'I went to different government departments to petition. The city government ordered the factory to give me treatment. In September 2002, they finally sent me to Renmin hospital for treatment. I was hospitalised for a month there.'

With 10 other workers, Mr Jiang again petitioned for compensation.

'Eventually, the mayor noticed and ordered the factory to solve the dispute,' he said. 'Many of us are facing death. The factory offered us some compensation.' Some got 50,000 to 60,000 yuan and some got 140,000 yuan. Some accepted the compensation and left. Mr Jiang's boss offered him 45,000 yuan, but he turned it down.

'I insisted on taking the matter to court after learning the severe consequences of my disease. We have to spend quite a lot on medical. I'm only 30 years old. If I could live to 50, I still have 20 years to worry about. I will have to spend 200,000 yuan on medical bills in the next 20 years,' he said.

Mr Jiang said that he had a mother, a 28-year-old wife and a seven-year-old son to support. 'I'm determined to get back what I am entitled to have by the law,' he added. Like Mr Wu, Mr Jiang is now in the second phase of the disease.

The People's Intermediate court has opened a hearing twice on his case, and each time they decided to uphold the previous verdict.

'We have questioned the court but the judge said there are too many workers in the factory and the boss could not offer to fully compensate everyone. He said that is why they could not give us what we demand,' Mr Jiang said.

Under mainland law, employers are totally liable if they have not purchased insurance to guard against occupational injury or illness.

'Now we are facing a desperate situation. We have gone to Beijing and the National People's Congress. They all agreed that we should receive a medical allowance and living allowance from the factory. They didn't say exactly how much we should have but they said we definitely should get some medical allowance. These are clearly written laws. We are facing the danger of death all the time. If we can get some allowance, we can live for a bit longer.

'We originally thought we could get our money through the legal process. But after we went to the court we found the legal system is not fair. We are stuck in the doldrums and we don't know where to turn to,' he said.

Shek Ping-kwan, campaigner of Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, a human rights group looking into labour problems in China, said the factory owner was wrong to say that he had done his bit by following the law.

'The compensation should be based on the real living needs of the workers. The medical fees for these workers are very high, the current compensation just could not match their needs,' Mr Shek said. '[The owner] said he would follow the court order, but then how long can these people wait? If they can't get suitable treatment, they will die in two to three years.'

The group added that in a recent case in Huizhou, at GP Batteries plant where about 100 of its workers were sent to hospital with high levels of cadmium in July, the workers received compensation higher than what the law required.

'Each worker needs at least 20,000 yuan a year for medical treatment, the present compensation is just not enough,' Mr Shek said. He added that some workers had signed an agreement with the company for lower compensation payments, as they were afraid of getting nothing from the firm.

'They are all only 30-something years old. Just when they have a family and are ready to open a new chapter of their lives, then they got this disease. What can they do?' he said.

In a weak voice, Mr Wu says he just wants what he is entitled to.

'I know that this disease cannot be healed,' Mr Wu says. 'It will be with me for the rest of my life. I just want to live a little bit longer by getting proper medical treatment.'