Amendments to China's occupational health law get cautious welcome

By Jennifer Cheung

Amendments to China’s Law on the Prevention and Treatment of Occupational Diseases (职业病防治法), approved by the National People’s Congress on 31 December 2011, will go some way to ease the ordeal workers face in getting diagnosed and compensated for occupational disease, according to a leading labour rights activist.

Zhang Haichao, who came to fame in 2009 when he voluntarily underwent an operation to open up his chest in order to prove he was suffering from the fatal lung disease pneumoconiosis, and subsequently dedicated his life to helping others in need, said “the amended law is on the side of occupational disease victims.”

Probably the biggest impediment to compensation for occupational disease victims currently is their inability to prove a labour relationship with their employer. As Zhang Haichao explained:

Usually the hospital can tell that you have pneumoconiosis, but they cannot tell if you got it from work unless you show them your history of working in a high dust environment. And as the majority of coal miners don’t sign labour contracts, they can’t prove that. Their boss won’t confirm their employment because they don’t want to pay compensation.”

Under the amended law however, if workers cannot provide documentary evidence of employment, either the work safety bureau or the hospital making the diagnosis can conduct their own investigation and establish proof that way.

In addition, the amended law triples the financial penalty for employers who sign or change employment contracts without informing workers of potential occupational disease hazards to a maximum of 150,000 yuan from the previous 50,000 yuan.

The amendments also clarify the roles of different government departments, giving overall responsibility for overseeing the work environment to the State Administration of Work Safety. In the past, workers routinely complained at getting pushed around from one local government department to another, all of whom shirked their responsibilities. However, work safety bureaus in Beijing, Shandong, Hunan, Anhui and other districts have already claimed in published documents that they lack sufficient personnel to fulfill their responsibilities.

Even after workers finally get proof of their occupational disease, they all too often discover that their employer has gone out of business. This is especially true in pneumoconiosis cases, which can take several years or even a decade to manifest clinical symptoms. In these cases, the local bureau of civil affairs will now be responsible for arranging compensation.

The amendments are a response to increased public debate and awareness of occupational disease in China, particularly pneumoconiosis, after a massive increase in the number of cases diagnosed in the last few years. A total of 27,240 occupational disease cases were reported in 2010, up 50 percent from 2009, compared with a 32 percent increase from 2008 to 2009. Nearly 90 percent of all occupational disease cases are pneumoconiosis-related.

During the 2011 session of the National People’s Congress in March, demands for legislative reform reached a crescendo. After three rounds of consultation, debates and reviews, the amendment was finalized on the last day of 2011.
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