Xiong Mengwen, 47, is one of thousands of migrant workers from Hunan province who moved to Shenzhen and took jobs as demolition workers. Unfortunately, he is also among hundreds of such workers who have been diagnosed with pneumoconiosis, a potentially fatal occupational lung disease that results from breathing in dust over a long period of time. In Xiong's case, he has worked at Shenzhen construction sites for nearly a decade. He and six other workers recently settled a drawn-out legal battle with a former employer that spanned more than two years - a course of action few workers take.
How did you make a living before you moved to Shenzhen, and why did you make the move?
I was a farmer in Sangzhi county, Zhangjiajie, in Hunan. We had very little farmland - only enough to feed our families. I did odd jobs for several years, too. Ten years ago, odd jobs in my hometown paid five to 10 yuan a day. But in Shenzhen at that time, a day's worth of blasting work could pay between 100 yuan and 200 yuan. Word of the good money spread through villages, and I followed my fellow villagers to the city in 2002. Most of the demolition workers here are from Hunan.
When did you discover the illness and how serious is it?
I didn't know I had developed pneumoconiosis until two of my colleagues from Sangzhi died, one at the age of 38 and the other at 43. I was diagnosed with stage-one pneumoconiosis by the Shenzhen Prevention and Treatment Centre for Occupational Disease in 2009. The city's evaluation committee [which determines whether someone is capable of working] also decided that I was 'seventh-degree disabled' from industrial injuries [on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the most severely disabled]. I cough from time to time and feel out of breath every time I climb the six flights of stairs to reach my rented flat.
What exactly did you do, and how were the working conditions?
As demolition workers, we use pneumatic drills to blast rocks. Blasting is a necessary procedure for building construction in Shenzhen because the city is mostly hilly and rocky. The rocks have to be blasted to make way for the foundations of the buildings. Workers from Hunan have taken part in the construction of about 80 per cent of the Shenzhen skyscrapers built in the past 10 years.
We were often sent into underground wells at construction sites, sometimes more than 30 metres deep, in a plain iron lift bucket. No protection was provided. The dust was so heavy, and the pneumatic drilling made the dust rise so high in the narrow well that people outside could not see us at all. We were covered with so much dust when we got out of the well that you could not tell a mouth from a nose.
A group of university students did a study [in July] at the site and reported: 'The workers' lungs have become dust collectors.' Nowadays we have a way to protect ourselves: by inserting two layers of wet tissues inside a gauze mask.
What was the result of the legal battle?
I reached a settlement last month with my former employer, Longcheng Blasting and Engineering. The company agreed to pay me 86,488 yuan (HK$105,570), as ordered by the court, which was 80 per cent of the compensation that a labour arbitration committee had determined I should get.
What made the seven of you decide to take action against the company?
We had contracted the illness through work, but no employer would take responsibility for that. The city's occupational disease hospital even refused to grant us medical examinations at first, because this is an occupational disease, and our employer has to give its approval in order for us to be checked for an occupational disease. Workers then demonstrated in front of Shenzhen government buildings in 2009 and succeeded in pressing the government to make the hospital provide the check-ups. Those who could not prove they were employed by the company received various levels of compensation from the government based on their medical diagnoses. I couldn't apply for the money because I was one of the few who had papers, including a demolition permit, to prove my work relationship with the company, so I had to turn to arbitration.
Is it hard for a migrant worker to confront a big company in court? What have you experienced?
Longcheng refused to admit I was an employee, so it sued me. The company sued me twice in the Longgang District People's Court and lost, then sued me twice again in the Shenzhen Intermediate People's Court and lost. The whole process lasted more than two years, and I have appeared in court more than 10 times. The biggest problem was proving a work relationship existed between Longcheng and me, because it never signed any labour contracts with us. We usually worked several months at one project under one demolition company, then moved to another project. We were often summoned by a labour contractor, who may have received the project from another subcontractor, instead of us being directly hired by Longcheng.
Luckily, I had kept the demolition permit that Longcheng had applied for me. The permit was valid from only June to December 2009, but in reality, I had worked with Longcheng on and off for about four years. At the final hearing [in the Shenzhen Intermediate People's Court], the company boss shouted at me and the other workers, saying we were nothing more than swindlers and beggars in the city. I felt angry but also helpless. Fortunately, the court ruled that the work relationship was valid.
What inspired you to keep pressing on?
It was the promise of a high-ranking officer with the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau. He told us days before the Lunar New Year in 2010: 'I guarantee that once you go through the legal process, you will get the compensation based on law. If you cannot get the money from the company, the government will pay you the full amount,' which he said would come through an expedited legal channel. He made the promise when we were petitioning in front of his government building. The government also distributed 2,000 yuan to each worker and chartered two coaches to coax us back to Hunan. However, when we returned [to Shenzhen], that offer of payment from the government was gone.
Now, I have no way of getting full compensation from the government if I turn down the 80 per cent [of the arbitration settlement that the court had ordered Longcheng to pay]. Even so, the government did help us somewhat. For instance, my lawyer was appointed by the government and we didn't have to pay the legal fees.
How did the lawsuit affect your work and life?
I had to stop working from time to time to prepare for the legal process, to talk with my lawyer and to appear in court. My salary shrank during that period. I have just finished paying the college tuition fees and living expenses for my 22-year-old son and 20-year-old daughter. I have been living in a rented two-bedroom flat in Shenzhen with five fellow demolition workers from Sangzhi. That is all I can afford.
What is your plan for the future?
I won't spend the money to treat the disease, because it is irreversible. The university students are contacting a charity organisation in Hong Kong to pay the whole cost of a lung cleansing procedure for us. Otherwise, I won't get a cleansing myself. I plan to use the payout to start some subcontracting projects for blasting work. I will certainly let the workers know the consequences of doing this job. But you've got to work to make a living.