Workers die everyday in factories across China. Despite the appalling working and living conditions that contribute to these fatalities, factory owners routinely deny any liability and seek to avoid paying anything but token compensation to the victims' families. This practice is particularly prevalent where migrant workers are concerned. Factory owners and managers exploit the families' lack of legal knowledge and awareness of their rights, as well as their distance from the factory, in a bid to circumvent their own legal obligations. Victims' families are ignored, lied to, or harassed when they attempt to press for compensation.
In August 2006, CLB Director Han Dongfang talked to the father of 19-year-old worker from the countryside near Tianmen in the central province of Hubei who was fatally electrocuted by a faulty shower unit whilst taking a shower at his factory dormitory on the evening of 31 December 2005. The factory was in Shenzhen, some 750 kilometres to the south of Tianmen. Following the accident, management not only failed to inform the family of the death or offer compensation, they even refused to pay for the autopsy and cremation. Because the family were not familiar with the provisions in the Labour Law regarding industrial accident compensation, they did not turn to the local labour bureau for help. In the end, and at considerable cost, they hired a lawyer to sue the factory for damages.
The father told Han that he first heard of his son's death not from the factory but from his nephew, who was working in the nearby city of Zhongshan. On hearing the news, he took the first flight down to Shenzhen and headed straight to the factory. After meeting with factory management, he was taken to a local guesthouse where he waited for an entire month for the factory to respond to his inquiries. Asked whether anyone from the factory talked to him about the question of compensation for his son's death after he got to the guesthouse, the father said, "The manager said that the cause of death was unknown and told us to get an autopsy performed. He didn't say anything about compensation."
The autopsy was performed by the provincial government run Nantian Forensic Medicine Centre in Shenzhen. However, the forensic centre only issued the autopsy report, which confirmed the cause of death as electrocution, more than a month later on 28 February, by which time the father had already returned home for the Chinese New Year. "My family back home were worried about me, so I went home to spend Chinese New Year holiday there. But I can't say it was a good holiday."
Whilst in Shenzhen, the father was largely ignored by factory management, and apart from a token initial payment from the factory, the father had to cover his guesthouse bills and all other expenses himself. "I paid for all that myself. The manager took me to the guesthouse and gave me 2,400 yuan and nothing else after that. I had to cover all the other expenses."
He went to the factory on numerous occasions in an attempt to talk to the manager. "The manager said we had to wait for the autopsy report, and that I should try to sort things out myself. The forensic medicine centre told us that we had to pay for the autopsy ourselves." Because he could not pay the 8,000-yuan autopsy fee and the 2,000-yuan funeral parlour fee, the father ended up borrowing 10,000 yuan from the factory's deputy general manager. He was made to sign an IOU for the money. The factory manager also told him to get a lawyer, but after he went ahead and hired a lawyer, the factory refused to even pay for the cremation.
Asked why he didn't seek advice from the local labour bureau, which could have explained the relevant laws and regulations governing such cases and told him that as his son's employer the factory should have assumed its responsibilities, including paying for the inquest into the death, the father said that he didn't go to the labour bureau because "we didn't know the procedure" and "we were told that we had to wait for the autopsy report."
After the autopsy report was issued, the father returned to Shenzhen and went to the Shenpeng Law Firm in Bao'an district to ask for legal advice. The firm's lawyer took on the case and told him that he could expect to get 120,000 yuan in compensation from the factory. "He said that as far as the compensation was concerned, it made no difference whether our son had died of illness or been electrocuted." Since that date, the father and the factory management have only communicated through their respective lawyers.
The father's lawyer informed the factory's lawyer that the father wanted 120,000 yuan in compensation, but the factory did not even bother to reply to this request. After the factory continued to ignore the father's demand for compensation, in March of 2006 the lawyer brought a 300,000 yuan lawsuit against the factory on behalf of his client. The Xixiang township court in Bao'an heard the case on 27 May and recommended an out-of-court mediation.
The factory eventually agreed to a settlement of 90,000 yuan, but the father refused to accept so little: "I am devastated by my son's death, so I will not accept a mere 90,000 yuan in compensation for his death. I am waiting to see what the court decides." "I've already spent 40,000-50,000 yuan [as a result of my son's death]."
"My son had only just graduated from high school. He wasn't even 20 and now he's gone." After consultation with his lawyer, the father agreed to halve his demand to 150,000 yuan. "It's hardly too much to ask for", he said. But the factory rejected this lower demand as well.
After taking on the case, the father's lawyer went to the factory dormitory to collect evidence. Escorted by the factory's lawyer, he and an electrician he'd hired examined the electric shower unit that had killed the young migrant worker. The electrician found that "the electric shower unit did not conform to the electrical safety code. The dorm's electric wiring system was overloaded and there were no safety measures in place to prevent accidents." The electrician also said that the "shower unit was live and too old."
The father also visited his son's factory dorm room, located in a five-storey building that also included the actual factory and housed more than 100 workers. His son's room, which measured about 10 square metres, had two bunk beds for four workers. "The housing conditions were poor. They were just workers. All they needed was a place to sleep and eat." Asked whether he had spoken with other workers in the factory, the father explained, "We spoke with a lot of people. Some workers had told [the foreman] that the electric shower unit was live but the factory did nothing to fix the problem." Despite this problem, prior to the accident the workers had not complained about working conditions. As the father said: "When have migrant workers ever dared complain of such things?" Since the accident, the factory has changed the shower units.
The father is a farmer and lives alone with his eldest son. "My wife died less than two years ago, and now my son is dead. I am middle-aged and have lost my wife and my son." The father and his eldest son have "enough food to eat, but no money to spend on other things." They have incurred debts of almost 60,000 yuan and have little hope of being able to pay them back: "We spent a lot of money on my sons' education and we've spent almost 40,000 yuan since my son died." The lawyer's fee was 3,000 yuan.
His younger son went to work as a migrant labourer in distant Guangdong because he wanted to escape poverty and this was the only way he could hope to earn enough money to go to university. "My son wanted to study. But after my wife died, we were in dire financial straits and couldn't afford to pay for his studies. After graduating from high school, he scored 286 on the university entrance exam, a few points short of what he needed to gain admission. When he left to seek work he took some books with him because he planned to continue his studies." In fact, the son intended to retake the university entrance examinations the following year. He started working in the factory (making moulds) on 5 July and died there half a year later, on 31 December. His average monthly wage was 300-400 yuan, though his last wage, which was paid in November, was 800 yuan.
"We now want the court to make a fair ruling regarding my son's death. The factory's failure to ensure safety led to my son's death and now all I want from the court is a fair judgement."
Han Dongfang's interview with the bereaved family was originally broadcast in two episodes in August 2006.