China National Coal Group Corp. is the second largest coal company in China, producing 105 million tons of raw coal in 2007. It subsidiary China Coal Energy Co. is listed both on the Hong Kong and Shanghai stock exchanges. China Coal has huge resources, yet when an employee of 26 years died suddenly at one of its mines in Shandong, management refused any compensation on the grounds that her death was not work-related.
In August 2008, CLB Director Han Dongfang talked to Sun Shengqiang, widower of 44 year-old Shao Hongzhen, about his year-long struggle for justice against a cold and unfeeling corporate giant. Sun, also a China Coal employee, lecturing in the Mechanical Engineering Department of Xuzhou Vocational and Technical College said: “From the time that my wife became ill until she died, and even in taking care of the funeral arrangements, the company leadership coldly refused to provide even one cent.”
During the process of determining whether her death was work-related, Sun said, the company used a variety of deceptive tactics, including suppressing his own statement on the issue, to avoid responsibility for his wife’s death.
Shao Hongzhen worked as a hoist operator in the Second Engineering Department of the China Coal No. 5 Construction Company, lowering miners and equipment down into the mine and bringing them back up. Her position was, Sun said, “The most special, key job in a coal mine.” Sun described their company work assignments as “mobile,” which meant that he and his wife usually lived apart. At the time of her death, she was working at a mine in Yutai, just across the provincial border in Shandong, and sleeping in the workers’ dormitory near the work site. Overtime and relief shifts at the company were “quite normal,” Sun said. It was also typical that company workers would not have weekends off, but rather they would be eligible for four or five days of home leave at the end of a month’s work. It was “normal,” said Sun, “to work for one or two months” with no rest days. Hongzhen, he said, was a hard worker and very willing to take on extra shifts.
Hongzhen was working an extra shift on 27 September and did not return to the workers’ dormitory until after midnight. At six o’clock the next morning, her co-workers discovered her unconscious on the ground, having fallen from her bed. Sun recalls receiving a phone call at 10:00 a.m. on 28 September, just as he was starting to teach a class. To avoid disturbing the class, Sun didn’t answer his phone. When it began ringing again, he knew that something was wrong. The caller was his wife’s coworker. Sun recalls, “She said that Hongzhen was not at all well…that she had fallen out of bed and couldn’t move or speak. I felt scared; I knew she was in danger.” Sun got to Yutai as quickly as he could, and hired an ambulance to bring his wife back to the hospital in Xuzhou, since he felt that the medical facilities in Yutai were inadequate. Because the company’s “emergency response was too slow,” Sun paid for the ambulance himself. There was a doctor along on the two-hour ride, but no particular lifesaving measures were taken – Hongzhen remained unconscious throughout the ride. “She lay by my side in the ambulance,” he said, “never moving or having any reaction.”
It was five o’clock in the afternoon by the time they arrived at the Xuzhou hospital. Hongzhen died early in morning of 29 September. Although she was brain dead, hospital staff put her on a respirator until about 11:00 p.m. on 30 September. The hospital determined that her cause of death was a stroke brought on by rheumatic heart disease. During this entire process, no one from China Coal was present and no financial assistance was offered. Sun paid all of the hospital bills himself.
“Hongzhen had been working for the company since age 18. Her father worked at this company too, and she took his place,” Sun said. In another year or two, he said she would have been eligible for early retirement. She seemed to be in good health and had no history of heart disease, although it is unclear whether or not she received proper medical checkups from the company.
Sun said he thought his wife’s heart disease might have been caused by her high-pressure job and long working hours. And even if there was no direct link, he pointed out that “someone with rheumatic heart disease should not be doing such work. She was putting her life in danger.”
Since the company headquarters were in Xuzhou, Sun asked the company to apply to the city’s Quanshan District Labour Bureau for a determination of occupational illness. The company did so reluctantly, only giving the appearance of cooperating with the family. “They didn’t even sign the acknowledgement page of the application,” Sun said, nor did they allow him to see or make a copy of the application, fearing what he might do with it. “I was the one who requested that they submit the application, and I needed to know its contents,” said Sun, “but they would not give it to me. And another thing, I gave them a statement of several reasons why my wife’s illness could be determined as an occupational illness, but they did not submit that to the Labour Bureau.” The company official Sun approached refused to even read it. “I said, ‘It will only take you five minutes, just have a look at it.’ He wouldn’t read it, and said, ‘You can do whatever you want or go to whomever you want, but this was not a work-related illness.’”
“Their attitude; to tell you the truth, this is how I feel. In their eyes, the death of a human being was ― this is not very pleasant to hear ― just like the death of a little chicken or dog. They were cynical about it. They had no sympathy at all,” he said. In the year since his wife’s death the company has offered the family no compensation whatsoever, and “not a word of comfort.”
The determination by the Labour Bureau, which Sun says was issued “two or three” days after the required 60-day time limit, was that Hongzhen’s death was not work-related because it occurred more than 48 hours after the initial work site incident, this despite the fact that she was declared brain dead within the 48 hour statutory limit - see Article 15.1 of the State Council’s Work-related Injury Insurance Provisions(gongshang baoxian tiaoli工伤保险条例).
Sun explained that, when Labour Bureau saw an unsigned application lacking sufficient documentation, “the matter was finished.” Prior to its determination, the Labour Bureau would not even allow Sun to see a copy of the materials submitted, saying “we don’t need to let you see this.” Sun then brought them a copy of his own statement, which bureau personnel refused to accept, saying Sun had to submit it through the company. Sun took his statement to the company once again, but the company, as before, did not submit it to the Labour Bureau. Sun appealed the Labour Bureau’s decision but, after three months of deliberation, the original decision was upheld by the local authorities.
Sun now regrets not exercising his legal right to directly submit an application as a spouse. But at the time Sun had to make his wife’s funeral arrangements and “take her back to the family home” for burial. “We were in state of grief…the company was submitting the application, and I wasn’t thinking very clearly.” It was only later that Sun realized the company most likely only agreed to submit an application in order to manipulate the process towards its own ends.
Sun went to the company’s sole union representative for help but none was forthcoming. “Such a large company, and only this one person, the union chairman,” Sun said. “Actually, the union has to do what the manager says. Whatever they say goes…it’s my feeling that 95 percent of union leaders serve management. It’s not an independent organization.” The union representative told Sun, “You know what it is like at our company. I would like to help you, but they won’t necessarily listen.” The union representative “gave me some advice on what procedures to follow,” said Sun, “but he wouldn’t do it himself.”
“In the past, there were over a dozen people in the union and, when an old worker died, they would send a wreath, right? And offer some condolence money and that sort of thing. There is none of that now.”
Sun decided to take the case to court and sue the Quanshan District Labour Bureau, because “it was they who determined that it was not an occupational illness.” However Sun was told by a number of lawyers: “‘How could the Quanshan District Court decide against the Quanshan District Labour Bureau? You will certainly lose your lawsuit.’ And this turned out to be true. I had fallen right into their trap.” The court, Sun said, told him bluntly that he had “no right to know” the information contained in the company’s application document, “because the company was the applicant.” Sun protested, saying, “I’m the surviving spouse; how can I not have even this right?”
In court, Sun said, the company (appearing as a third party) did not respond to questions about how often they performed medical examinations: “They stammered things like ‘I’m unclear’ and ‘I don’t know.’” They did not acknowledge that they had performed an examination, nor did they produce any medical records. Nonetheless, the first trial upheld the original determination by the Labour Bureau.
At the time of the interview, Sun’s case was in the appeals court. Although Sun had consulted two lawyers during the legal process, he had decided not to hire one. In addition to the problem of paying legal fees, no one, he felt, understood the situation as well as he, and he was willing to represent himself in court. “I’ll continue to fight to the best of my ability. I’ll get as far as I can. Now it is the appeals trial. If the decision is to uphold the original court decision, then that’s it. But after the final decision, there may be an appeal that would involve the Procuratorate. I’ll take that road as far as possible. If I’m stopped, I will send this information all over the internet. Then I’ll continue making appeals, even all the way to the central government. I’ll get to the bottom of this one way or the other.”
Han Dongfang’s interview with Sun Shengqiang was broadcast over eight episodes in July and August 2008.