Listed in Shanghai, Hong Kong, London and New York, China Petroleum and Chemical Corp (Sinopec) is one of China’s largest and best-known companies. It has a vast network of subsidiaries including Yangzi Petrochemical based in Nanjing. This company reportedly owns or has an interest in Nanjing Yangzi Maintenance and Installation (南京扬子检修安装), which employed Chen Dejun, a young migrant worker from the neighbouring province of Anhui.
Chen started work at Yangzi Maintenance and Installation in July 2010. Within 18 months, he started to experience dizziness, irregular heartbeat, headaches and tremors – all the symptoms of benzene poisoning, and almost certainly the result of his work doing spray-painting, acid washing, chemical cleaning and toxic waste disposal at the plant.
Today, Chen is seriously ill and bedridden but he has still not received any compensation because his employer did everything it could to prevent his illness from being classified by the authorities as an occupational disease. In February 2015, Chen’s sister, Deling, talked to China Labour Bulletin Director Han Dongfang about their long ordeal struggling against corporate greed and intransigence.
A dirty and dangerous job
Yangzi Petrochemical hit the headlines in June last year when an explosion ripped through its Nanjing oil refinery. See photo below. The company vowed to clean up its act but, less than a year later, there was another explosion at the same refinery, on 21 April 2015, in which one person was injured. Just last week, on 13 May, one worker died and another was critically injured after suffering from acute nitrogen asphyxiation at another Sinopec facility in nearby Shanghai.
Explosion at Yangzi Petrochemical on 9 June 2014. Photo: Xinhua.
Yangzi Maintenance and Installation had a well-established reputation for being a dirty and dangerous place to work. Chen Deling said several workers had already died after working there, mostly young migrants like her brother, hired on a temporary or casual basis. The company allegedly had a long record of accidents but these were not reported to the authorities.
Chen Deling said the safety precautions at the factory were basically a “pantomime.” The company did once hire an environmental testing organisation, but samples were only taken and tests only done on a single day. Although Chinese law requires that employees in hazardous workplaces undergo regular physical check-ups, her brother had never been tested.
The company policy it seems was to send workers home as soon as they showed symptoms of illness. All of Chen Dejun’s seven or eight workshop colleagues were eased out in this way, and it was a similar story throughout the plant, Deling said.
However, when Chen Dejun first started to suffer from headaches and dizziness that persisted for three or four months on end, he did not immediately connect his medical condition to his working environment. It was only when a doctor suggested they should go to a hospital specialising in occupational diseases that they realized what the problem was:
We went to all the occupational illness hospitals and asked them about my brother’s condition. They said this was industrial poisoning but they did not know specifically what kind. They said you need to get a definitive diagnosis. So in March 2013, we went off to do that and asked the company to arrange this for us.
However, the company was not interested in helping Chen; managers refused to hand over any employment or medical records, and just gave them 1,000 yuan for hospital expenses:
The doctor laughed. He said, do you seriously expect to be hospitalised for 1,000 yuan? The diagnosis and evaluation process takes two or three months, and you only get the result after three months or more.
Eventually, after bombarding local government officials with pleas for help, the company did send over some documents, and Chen underwent the necessary tests. Whilst he was in hospital, however, the company came up with a plan to get rid of him.
When he was in hospital and the documents had been transferred, the company said they wanted to talk to him. They knew the workshop where my brother had been was full of toxic and harmful substances and said they were prepared to move him to a different workshop, but they wanted him to sign a document stating that his illness had developed spontaneously and had nothing to do with the company. My brother is poorly educated, and was enthusiastic about being moved to a safer workplace. But when I asked the doctor about this, he said, ‘You fool, you were working in a toxic environment, and there is a risk of poisoning; you cannot just sign this. You cannot just sign any old thing. They are trying to evade their responsibilities.’
It then transpired that Chen’s employment contract was not with Yangzi Maintenance and Installation directly but with a shell company, set up in 2008 and controlled by Yangzi Maintenance and Installation. The shell company had the same address and telephone number as Yangzi Maintenance and Installation on its letterhead but under the law, it was a separate entity. To make matters worse, important details in the contract had been left blank, and after signing, the original document was not given to Chen. When the family went to the company to seek an explanation, Deling said:
The company said they had enough money to do whatever they wanted, including hiring thugs… After that they ignored us. We went after them several dozen times but as soon as they saw us coming they ran away. We were looking from eight in the morning till past five in the evening, but their boss kept out of sight.
Deling said the company “has a lot of clout in the local area, and the people involved are all local people so they do not dare to upset them.”
Indeed, the attitude of the Nanjing occupational illness hospital was overtly hostile to the Chens. Two of the top managers, including the deputy director, went out of their way to avoid Chen and his sister and create obstacles, claiming, for example, that Chen’s occupational history was fraudulent.
It was then that the hospital told them that Chen was suffering from tuberculosis.
I told them all those people that you see on the television with occupational illnesses, before they were tested, they were all suspected of having TB, including that fellow who had his chest cut open, Zhang Haichao, and he actually had pneumoconiosis. But the company still insisted it was TB and treated him for that.
Eventually, the local labour department brought proceedings to a halt on the grounds that Chen had no direct labour relationship with his place of work.
Han Dongfang suggested several possible legal approaches. Citing articles 71, 72, 73, 74 and 76 of the Law on the Prevention and Control of Occupational Diseases, Han urged Chen to seek redress from the local work safety regulators, who have a responsibility to ensure that workers operate in a toxin-free environment. He added that Article 17 requires the authorities to issue warnings and if necessary fines of up to 100,000 yuan in cases of breach of workplace environmental regulations, and make public all documents relating to measures they have taken.
The social security authorities could also be urged to put pressure on the company, he said.
If the company has not made social security contributions for a worker who incurs medical expenses etc. for treatment of occupational illness, these costs must be assumed by the company, and if the company refuses to do this, then based on Article 41 of the Social Insurance Law, payments are made from the Work Injury Insurance Fund, and the Fund then bills the company. The injured worker and his or her family do not need to sue the company.
However, if that pay-out was insufficient, Han said that under Article 59 of the Law on the Prevention and Control of Occupational Diseases, the Chens could still file a civil lawsuit against the company on the grounds of negligence.
Chen Deling agreed to look into these options but was not optimistic:
I believe an individual’s legal rights must be protected. It is very frightening to think that someone is above the law. I do not have many demands. I just hope that the road for migrant workers can be made a bit smoother.
Han Dongfang’s interview with Chen Deling was first broadcast on Radio Free Asia's 劳工通讯 in eight episodes in February and March 2015.