This week USi interviewed He Bing, a leading Chinese advocate for workers’ rights to pneumoconiosis compensation. His protracted battle started one decade ago, and his perseverance has inspired thousands of other pneumoconiosis-stricken workers to strive ultimately for their rights to live and work with dignity and respect. He tells USi his personal stories, his observations for 2014, and outlook for the new year.
Statistics show pneumoconiosis is China’s No.1 occupational disease. Over six million workers have contracted it in mines, construction sites and jewellery factories. The number of new pneumoconiosis cases keeps growing due to inadequate workplace education and prevention. Numerous middle-aged workers with pneumoconiosis have died in silence owing to the failure of getting their legal compensation, leaving huge financial and emotional burdens to their families.
He Bing started working in a coal mine in Sichuan in 1992. In 2010, he was diagnosed with pneumoconiosis, at the age of 33. Back then, coal mine workers did not know the risk and consequence of exposing themselves to dust for long time, and many confused it with tuberculosis. It was the mysterious death of his older brother, and many of his coworkers that made him realise the disease was something unusual. But He immediately faced another dilemma: he and other coal mine workers did not sign employment contracts with the coal mine, which was closed in 2003 and reopened in a different name in 2010. He estimated out of the 30,000 workers the coal mine employed, around 6,000 have contracted pneumoconiosis, most of whom are denied legal compensation due to lack of formal contracts.
USi: What are the key events in 2014 for you?
He: After three year’s struggle, 31 workers in E’bian finally got basic allowance (300 yuan per month) for themselves and their family members, medical treatment, annual consolation money (5,000 yuan), and free education for their children. I still remembered when they formed their workers’ union and selected their workers’ leaders on 31 December 2011.
Another group of 11 workers in Shifang managed to secure occupational disease certification, basic allowance (around 320 yuan per month) and part their medical treatment can be covered by the government. That was achieved through their two years’ wrestling with the government.
Workers will only succeed when we stay united and know how to use the legal weapon to argue with the company and the government. In the meantime, we have to be mentally prepared for the long battle. For instance,146 workers from Jiulong county struggled for five years to get their compensation through legal channels. In 2012, when they finally received the 50 million yuan, 12 workers couldn’t live to see that.
USi: What kind of roles do the government and the trade union play in this long journey?
He: Their role is very minimal. They have done very little to help us. The “red labour union” only plays an ornamental role after the government has finalised a solution for us. For example, it sometimes helps workers get medical insurance, which is already a workers’ legal right as stipulated in Chinese labour law.
USi: How about the help from civil society, say Love Save Pneumoconiosis (a charity fund set up by the renowned investigative journalist Wang Keqin that provides lung lavage to workers)?
He: The organisation only cares about the project’s media exposure. In other words, what they do depends on what kind of publicity material they want from workers. In some cases, they have unintentionally sabotaged workers’ solidarity. For instance, in Huanyuan county where they invested the most, workers told me they need to bribe volunteers (pay 300 to 500 yuan) in order to get the chance to receive lung lavage (it costs 10,000 yuan each time, and workers with pneumoconiosis have to receive lung lavage at least once per year in order to sustain their lives), which is extremely unfair for the impoverished workers, and is very bad for workers’ unity.
USi: Have you told Wang Keqin about this?
He: I told him in person. He said it was just individual cases. I suggested that the name list should be decided by workers rather than volunteers.
USi: How about now? Has the situation been improved?
He: There’s no now. It has already left Hanyuan, leaving workers in a worse situation than before. Out of the 400 workers in Hanyuan, only around 100 workers received one lung lavage treatment per person. Workers with this disease need long-term treatment. How can this one-time lavage help workers?
USi: True. But why are Hanyuan workers worse off than before?
He: If they (Love Save Pneumoconiosis) hadn’t intervened, the 400 workers could have united and sought justice from the local government, who under pressure, could have provided a long-term medical treatment for workers. But now, workers in Hanyuan don’t have the same confidence to fight this battle as before.
USi: What kind of challenges and opportunities do you think workers will have in 2015?
He: The biggest challenge is the complicity of local government and coalmines. For instance, in Anhua, the court finally ruled 19 workers will get 3 million yuan’s compensation from the local mine, a battle won after workers’ 5 years’ struggles and efforts. But the mine boss simply refused to execute the court ruling. The workers’ lawyer was beaten which resulted in bone fractures, and workers who went to the mine demanding compensation got beaten too. The mine boss told workers he was not afraid of the law.
The same situation occurred in Leping. 36 workers only got 30% of the legal compensation and the local court refused to establish their case.
As to the new opportunity, we see less government suppression than before, of course as long as workers stay in solidarity and don’t take violent actions.
Last month (December 2014), we went to the provincial capital to request the government to give us work injury certification (the first step in the legal compensation process). After our request was rejected, we marched in the street holding banners asking for justice. The police at least did not beat us.
USi: I recalled you and your co-workers already managed to get basic allowance and medical treatment from the government several years ago, why do you still seek work injury certification? Is it because the basic allowance is not enough?
He: It is not a question of “enough or not enough”. It’s the difference between “allowance” and “compensation”. “Allowance” is something we beg to get, while “compensation” is what we are entitled to by law. Ultimately we want to have what we legally deserve.
USi: The law is clear, but it is difficult to enforce the law?
He: Yes. That is the biggest difficulty.
USi: In the past ten years, you have been actively involved in not only getting compensation for you and your coworkers, but also encouraging other workers stricken by pneumoconiosis to defend their rights to compensation as well. What motivates you to do that?
He: It was my family that led our villagers to work in the Ganluo coal mine. Then all the four male members of my family, and the whole village contracted pneumoconiosis. That was when I started to have the idea of seeking justice for my family, and for the other workers with pneumoconiosis.
USi: Pneumoconiosis is a systematic issue in China. So many workers are waiting for the compensation to save their lives, and we have seen so many workers die from breathlessness on their beds. What do you think can urge the government to really care about these workers and their livelihood?
He: We need to start from supervision (over government). Only when the government feels the pressure from the below can it start doing something (for workers). It is a prolonged battle. But we need constantly put pressure on the government.
For a comprehensive overview of the situation of workers stricken with pneumoconiosis in China, please refer to China Labour Bulletin’s research report: Time to Pay the Bill: China’s obligation to the victims of pneumoconiosis.
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