Injured miner exemplifies the “informed disenchantment” of China’s workers seeking redress

27 June 2019

Xia Shihua saw a stint in China’s coalmines as a shortcut to the good life. He knew from friends and relatives that although the work was hard and very dangerous, the pay was good and probably worth the risk. Xia decided to take his chances, and headed to Henan, where, for a year, he moved from pit to pit, doing different jobs until 12 February 2008, when his luck ran out. A large rock from an underground roof-fall broke his foot, leaving him with a permanent injury. Lacking an employment contract and unable to get any kind of formal compensation, he had to make do with a private payoff that was at best one-third of what he was legally entitled to.

Xia soon realized the compensation he received was not nearly enough and he sued the mine, not once but three times, in an attempt to get redress. However, like thousands of worker litigants before him, Xia encountered numerous obstacles created both by his former employer and the courts. Xia’s story is a typical example of what American scholar Mary Gallagher calls the “informed disenchantment” of China’s workers who go into the legal process with high hopes, only to be disappointed and frustrated in the end.

Despite his ordeal, Xia was determined to press on. In August 2009, he talked to Han Dongfang about his accident and his attempts to sue the mine, as well as the appalling working conditions faced by miners and the complacency and collusion of government officials.

Originally from Shiyan in Hubei, Xia tried to find work in Beijing after graduating from technical college. But he could only get low-paid temporary work, and so in 2007, he moved to Henan to work in the coal mines where the pay was relatively good and reliable. But seven days after he started work lining the tunnel floor at the Lizhai mine in Erqi district, Zhengzhou, a rock fell from above, glancing off his head and landing on his foot. The wire mesh that should have been in place to protect miners from falling rocks had not yet been installed.

At first, Xia said, “the boss was very positive about it. He got me to the hospital immediately, and had me treated.” He also paid 10,000 yuan for the cost of the operation and two weeks’ hospitalization. But then the payments stopped and Xia was forced to leave the hospital.

With this kind of fracture, you need metal pins put in, and you should not leave hospital at all during that time. Two weeks is not enough. But one day of treatment and drugs was costing me more than 700 yuan. I was alone, there was nobody to help me, and I could not afford that without phoning home for money.

Inadequate compensationXia soon used up all of his 3,000 yuan savings and was giving IOUs to the hospital. “All of my money went to that hospital,” he said. Unable to see a better option, Xia signed a private compensation agreement with the mine, for 50,000 yuan, which exempted his employer from paying additional medical costs.

As the months went by, Xia realized he would be disabled for life, and he came to feel that he had been shortchanged. He tried to track down the labour contractor who managed the employees’ 30,000 yuan “risk deposit fund” (风险抵押金) at the mine but management had got rid of the labour contractor and pocketed the money. Xia approached several family members for help but was told by a cousin his injury was “his own responsibility, and nothing to do with us.”

After researching the possibility of legal action, Xia sought to obtain the necessary confirmation that his injury was work-related from the official diagnosis centre attached to Zhengzhou University. Xia’s injury was classified at Grade Seven, which “should have entitled me to a payment of at least 105,800 yuan for disability alone,” Xia said.

With the necessary procedures complete, Xia sought to initiate litigation, but he was immediately confronted with the problem of who to sue. The mine’s business licence had been revoked in September 2008, two months before Xia launched his first lawsuit, although it was still valid when Xia was injured seven months earlier. Moreover, Xia explained, “On the mining certificate, it said Zhengzhou Coal Industry (Group). But on the business registration record it said that the Lizhai mine had no relationship with Zhengzhou Coal.” Examining the records at Henan Provincial Department of Land Resources, Xia came to suspect that the Lizhai mine may have applied for the permit using the name of Zhengzhou Coal, a more prestigious, state-owned concern.

Xia attempted sued Zhengzhou Coal Industry regardless but the court refused to accept the case:

The court said that I had got the name of the defendant wrong, and that documents from the central government showed that two different companies were involved. So they rejected it.

Lawsuits thrown out on minor technicalities

In his second attempt, Xia got help from the Erqi District Legal Aid Centre. This time, Xia sued both Lizhai mine and the Erqi subsidiary of Zhengzhou Coal Industry, which Xia still held to be the managing entity, “so that nobody could say I have got the wrong guys now.” But in writing down the name of the Lizhai mine, Xia abbreviated it, leaving out the characters for “Erqi District, Zhengzhou.” The judge again rejected the case on the grounds of that the name of the defendant was incorrect.

The third time, Xia sued the settlement committee (清委会) of Lizhai mine, taking care to ensure all details were correct. The court finally accepted the case but because the defendant refused to sign the necessary paperwork, the judge declined to hear the case until the defendant was ready.

Xia’s experiences left him disenchanted with the legal system and its inability to combat the collusion between government officials and coalmine owners and operators.

The work safety people will refer you to the labour authorities and the labour authorities will refer you to the courts. You are just fobbed off. Meanwhile, you get no money from your boss, who can just brush you aside, and nobody can do anything about it. If you go to court, it’s a very long process. The judge can delay proceedings for months. If the worker is from outside the area, he is helpless. It is only because I got that 50,000 yuan in a private deal that I was able to fight back. Without money, you cannot even start. Even if you do initiate legal action, many migrant workers just do not understand legal procedures. They make your head spin. If the tiniest detail is wrong, your case will be dismissed. This happens a lot. I just wrote a few words down incorrectly, a mistake that could have been easily rectified. The judge threw it out. And once the case is dismissed - this case that means so much to you - you have to start all over again. The judges waste a lot of your time.
You get mentally exhausted from being treated like this and from the constant delaying. In the end, most wronged coalminers do not go to court. They will reach a private agreement. They are not used to the idea of taking legal action, and they cannot afford the costs.

Despite the setbacks, Xia says he is determined to press on with his legal action, not just for himself but also in order to push for legal reform.

I have now decided to take this a little further. The first aim is fostering a legal system for all society, and another is encouraging more officials to confront the issue of the rights of coal miners. This is primarily a matter of promoting a society based on rule of law, a society that is more just and fair. .. More people are getting interested in this now. This case has caused more people to think about these things.

Failure to enforce laws and regulations on coalmine safety

Xia pointed out that there were widespread and routine violations of work safety regulations at the mine but that local officials had been bought off by the mine owner and did nothing to enforce the rules.

Although the mine did have gas detection equipment, it lacked adequate safeguards against coal dust. Moreover, the mine never conducted checkups for lung disease or arranged for safety training, and at no time were underground safety inspections carried out. Xia explained:

By rights, work cannot proceed if there is no steel wire mesh in place to prevent roof-falls. But one man had already been hit by falling rock. On the day I was hurt, the workforce had been reluctant to go down. But the contractor said, “if nobody goes to work, that is not right.” So we went. .. Supervision is not strict. There are hidden dangers everywhere. But because punishments are not severe enough, nobody cares.
If you get hurt, you make a phone call, and you tell the safety inspection people there was some kind of accident, and very quickly the mine owner will get wind of this, and because the safety inspection people are all in his pocket, he does not care what you tell them. At Lizhai, the mine administration and the work safety bureau were in the same office building, and if you wanted to go upstairs to the work safety office, the security people will stop you.

Asked by Han whether the mine union could have helped, Xia replied, “What union? We do not have one. We were all rural migrants, and that means everything was pretty informal.”

Han discussed with Xia the possibility of setting up miners’ taskforces to carry out regular inspections of coalmine facilities, including cabling, ventilation, dust control devices, and roof support structures. But, Xia cautioned, for this system to work, it would first be necessary to change the mindset of rural migrant workers. “They do not have such a high cultural level as other people - they are only there to make money - and they do not have the same sense of responsibility as other people.”

Han Dongfang’s interview with Xia Shihua was broadcast over four episodes in August and September 2009. To read the full Chinese transcript or listen to the audio file of the broadcast please go to the workers’ voices section of our Chinese language website and follow the links.

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