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Social injustice in China: Two widows’ tales
In the eastern province of Shandong, a sixty-five-year-old widow had to find work on a construction site in order to pay off medical debts accumulated during her husband’s long illness. The labour contractor for the project promised her 6,000 yuan for her back-breaking work but after 82 days on the job, she had not received a single cent.

When Liu Hai, a senior engineer at a semiconductor materials company in Shenzhen died after collapsing at work, his young widow was a saddled with a massive bill from the hospital because incredibly, according to provincial government regulations, his death was not considered to be “work-related.”

At China Labour Bulletin, we hear tales of injustice and hardship on almost a daily basis but even so, these two appalling and ridiculous incidents stood out simply because of the absolute lack of compassion and humanity exhibited by both employer and government officials. Even the mainland journalists covering these stories were shocked by the events. The journalist in Shandong for example wrote:

Of all the cases I have reported, I have never felt as shocked and angry as I am in this instance... I am angry and indignant because if what they say is true, that the contractor has repeatedly refused to pay their wages, then what kind of person is this contractor exactly? What is going on inside his head?

When Sun Liping’s husband died after an eleven-year battle with diabetes, she was left with debts of around 40,000 yuan. Her children were struggling to feed their own families and could not help, so Sun joined some fellow villagers and started work on a landscaping project in the nearby city of Qingdao. She described how:

I couldn't move the big stones, so I moved the small ones. I got tired using the wheel-barrow to move soil, so I only filled half of it each time. I had to use a big shovel to mix the cement, starting from the middle and slowly mixing it bit by bit. By night-time, my whole body was hurting, especially my waist, the pain was so bad that I couldn't sleep.

My daily expenses were less than four yuan. I would buy two buns and eat them with spring onions. The pickled vegetables sold in the market were too expensive, one pound costs 1.50 yuan. I got someone to bring some pickles in from the suburbs because they only cost 70 cents. I could use them as a dip for crispy pancakes. I would get cheap ones too, 1.40 yuan for one pound. If I really felt like eating meat, I would buy some chicken heads for two yuan and cook them; at least I could get some grease water out of it.

When the job was complete, the labour contractor told the workers he could not pay them but that there was more work available at another site. The workers moved to the new site but when, after a total of 82 days of arduous manual labour they had still not been paid, they downed tools and moved back to the original site. However, they could no longer sleep there and were reduced to sleeping on the streets, sharing four thin straw mats between eight of them. Their shoes are worn out from walking the streets each day looking for the labour contractor and they now have to rely on hand-outs from passers-by.

Liu Hai had been employed at the same company in Shenzhen for nine years. He collapsed at work and during work hours, so his widow Deng Zhiyun fully expected that his death would be considered “work related,” and that the medical bills for three day’s emergency care would be covered by insurance.

When Deng applied for official certification of work-related injury however she was told her husband’s case did not qualify because he had exceeded the maximum permitted 48 hours emergency treatment. Officials told a stupefied Deng that under Guangdong’s Work-related Injury Insurance Regulations (工伤保险条例) only those employees who die within 48 hours of falling ill at work can be certified as dying of a work-related injury or illness.

Liu had spent 77 hours in hospital. This meant Deng had to pay the hospital bill herself. Moreover, she and her two young children would not get the 200,000 yuan compensation they would have received if the death had been work-related.

It is unfortunately typical for local government officials to stick to the narrowest possible interpretation of the law in work-related injury, illness and death cases, even when that law is patently ridiculous. Officials simply don’t seem to care that families have been broken apart by the loss of their breadwinner.

Deng has filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the government’s decision but legal experts are not optimistic about her chances, given the law as it stands at present. Since, the case came to light this week, however, several mainland commentators have called for the 48 hour rule to be abolished, claiming it has no basis in medical science.

Meanwhile, in Qingdao, a local migrant workers’ centre is seeking to provide assistance to Sun and her colleagues.