In October 2000, Chen Changhong, a young migrant worker from Hubei, got a job at Dahua Battery Co. Ltd. in Quanzhou, Fujian. He worked for nine years cleaning off and melting down pieces of lead from old storage batteries. In May 2009, he felt weak and nauseous, his joints ached, and he had abdominal pain. He was admitted to hospital where tests showed the level of lead in his blood was more than eight times higher than the widely accepted danger level of 100 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL).
Chen Changhong died two weeks later, on June 12, 2009, at the age of 37, leaving a child and elderly mother in need of support.
His cousin Chen Huofa, who worked in the same factory, sought compensation from their employer but ran into a brick wall of corruption and collusion. Dahua Battery, a major company in Quanzhou, reportedly had hospital, trade union and local government officials in its back pocket, and used its power and influence to pay off the victims of occupational disease with a derisory few thousand yuan each.
In April 2010, Han Dongfang talked to Chen Huofa about his cousin’s death, working conditions at the factory and his family’s fight for justice.
Collusion with the official diagnosis centre
The first obstacle for the family to overcome when Chen fell ill was the local centre for occupational disease prevention and control. The centre was responsible for providing the official diagnosis of occupational disease but it initially refused to give the family the test results. Chen Huaofa explained:
Dahua is a major player in Quanzhou; it has a lot of power in terms of paying taxes etc, so they are connected with the Disease Prevention and Control Centre...to say it our way, they are hooked up with them. Everyone who works at Dahua goes to the there for an exam every year, and the company pays the bills.
Chen claimed the centre, in collusion with the company routinely falsified the results of their blood tests. “If we go to the centre for a blood test and, say the result is 100μg/dL, it may only be 80 when they announce it.”
When the family asked for Chen’s test results, they were told by an official at the centre that such information could only be disclosed if the boss of Dahua telephoned the centre to authorize it.
Chen explained that workers usually could only see their test results when the “adjusted figures” were posted on the company notice board. Sometimes doctors at the centre could be persuaded to would tell workers the actual result but it was virtually impossible for the workers to obtain test results in writing. When the family finally persuaded the doctors to reveal Chen’s test results, they discovered his reading was a staggering 848μg/dL.
Labour officials and courts no help
The family sought compensation from the company but they were only offered 10,000 yuan.
We didn’t accept it. We went to the district labour bureau but it refused our request for arbitration. This company of ours has a certain amount of power in Quanzhou. It was hard for us to do it, and there was never a reason given; they just said that they couldn’t take our case, and gave us a dismissal notice.
The family then hired a lawyer in Quanzhou to help them bring a lawsuit against Dahua in the Heshi Township Court. Chen said:
The judge attempted to mediate between the two parties and a compensation package of 30,000 yuan was suggested. That is, based on the actual situation of the deceased, medical expenses, this and that, when it was added up, we had spent not just 30,000 yuan; but 40,000 yuan.
The family did not agree to the settlement, and at the time of the interview, six months later, no agreement had been reached and no judgment had been issued by the court.
Trade union used as health insurance policy
Dahua employees were all supposed to have health insurance but the company never provided it. Incredibly, Dahua claimed it was the factory trade union’s responsibly to compensate workers for illness. When workers requested reimbursement for medical expenses, Chen explained, the company would say “if you have a problem, go over to the union to get some money.”
Chen approached the enterprise union chairwoman, Ms. Shen, about their case; she “gave us a photocopied procedural form and then had us go to the Quanzhou Municipal Federation of Trade Unions to get the money,” said Chen.
“It’s a private company” he said, “She has to do what the boss says, right? Otherwise, how could she survive? She certainly couldn’t. So for a problem like this, they are not helpful, as far as I’m concerned.” Chen only expected to get a small proportion of their total expenses, “maybe ten or 20 percent; something like that.”
Health and safety rules ignored
The company provided no other social security or benefits to its workers. The hours they worked varied depending on the market, orders, and other factors. As for its environmental and work safety practices, Chen said, “As soon as the Environmental Protection Bureau says they are coming over for an inspection, all of the workers are sent on holiday,” and production stops. He said the company had been closed down by inspectors once, but quickly re-opened.
In terms of worker safety, “We had a mask and gloves,” said Chen. Good protective masks were used, that cost 50 yuan apiece. But the company only bought the first mask; “if yours broke and you couldn’t use it and threw it away, if you applied for another one, there weren’t any. So you had to take money out of your own pocket to buy one.”
Chen admitted that many workers tried to get by with their old masks. Dust reduction equipment was installed on the factory floor, but regardless, Chen said, dust was “everywhere, all the time,” it was even coming out of the company’s waste water pipes.
“Every worker comes into contact with lead; it’s just a question of how much,” he added.
Chen explained that his cousin was not the only one at the factory to die from occupational disease. “Five died the year before last,” he said; “One worker even died on the factory floor, during working hours.”
“In terms of compensation,” he said, “most migrant workers don’t have much awareness of the law. They are just compensated a few thousand yuan and are buried, the family members are comforted a bit, and that’s that.”
By the end of the interview, Chen was considering other legal avenues, including a civil lawsuit against the Quanzhou Occupational Disease Prevention and Control Centre for their liability in the case; an administrative lawsuit against the Quanzhou Municipal Health Bureau, the Centre’s supervisory bureau, for nonfeasance, and legal proceedings against the local union for neglect of its duties.
“Our family has no other wish than to give us workers a voice. That is it, there is nothing else,” Chen explained.
Han Dongfang’s interview with Chen Huofa was originally broadcast in five episodes in April 2010.