China’s 6 million ‘black lung’ workers living on just US$61 a month, with most struggling to survive
- Pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease, is incurable and caused by long term exposure to dust in workplaces and is most common among coal miners
- The plight of some six million migrant workers in China currently suffering from the disease is set to be discussed at the ‘two sessions’ meetings in Beijing
Chinese migrant workers suffering from incurable black lung disease lived on an average monthly income of just 393 yuan (US$61) last year, far below the national average of over 4,000 yuan a month for other migrant workers, according to an annual survey from a non-governmental organisation.
Pneumoconiosis is caused by long-term exposure to dust in workplaces, and is most common among coal miners. It is the most common occupation-related disease in China, based on government data.
The problems faced by migrant workers with black lung disease will be a topic of discussion by top Chinese officials and advisers of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the China People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) – the so-called “two sessions” which starts on Friday in Beijing.
In particular, there may be discussions about the difficulties migrant workers with black lung disease have in being covered by health or work injury insurance.
“From the perspective of our respiratory doctors, pneumoconiosis is pneumoconiosis. The diagnosis is not difficult at all. There is no problem in diagnosing pneumoconiosis based on the patient’s occupational dust exposure history, chest X-ray, and high-resolution spiral CT,” said Chen Jingyu, a doctor and a delegate to the NPC, at a panel discussion this week after the release of the survey.
“Difficulties in the diagnosis of pneumoconiosis have been raised at the NPC and CPPCC for several years, but how much it has been improved is still a question.”
Last year, households of workers with black lung disease lived on an average monthly per capita income of just 393 yuan, down by 16 per cent from a year earlier, according to the survey, with three per cent receiving zero income last year.
This was far below the average for all migrant workers, which rose to 4,072 yuan (US$630) last year, up by 2.8 per cent from a year earlier, according to data from China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).
The survey found that more than 80 per cent of families with workers suffering from black lung disease could not make ends meet last year, a sharp rise from 64 per cent in 2019. On average, the debt of these families was close to double their savings.
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Around a third of their total expenditures went to medical bills, but only a small portion could be claimed back through medical and work injury insurance.
Less than 30 per cent of migrant workers were covered by work injury insurance in 2019, according to government data, with the NGO estimating that only 3.5 per cent of workers suffering from black lung disease had work injury insurance.
One of the key problems facing workers in receiving an official diagnosis of pneumoconiosis as an occupational disease is that they need to provide labour contracts to be able to claim work injury insurance.
But according to the survey, three out of four workers with black lung disease did not sign labour contracts and less than 20 per cent of employers provided workers with proof of employment.
In a widely reported case in 2009, a migrant worker from Henan province cut open his chest to reveal black lung disease after futile attempts to prove he was sick.
Even though more migrant workers have moved from industrial sectors to service sectors in recent years, around 46 per cent of workers remained in the construction and manufacturing sectors in 2019, according to the NBS.
The number of migrant workers in China fell to 285 million at the end of 2020, down by 1.8 per cent from a year earlier, partly because of travel restrictions caused by the coronavirus, according to official data. The number of workers who regularly travelled for work also dropped 2.7 per cent last year.