Construction worker Guo Qiang fell from a truck crane while dismantling packing boxes on his job site in Tianjin on 29 June 2021. In a coma, he was rushed to the Wuqing district hospital, where he was diagnosed with a range of fractures to his vertebrae and skull and other serious complications. After coming out of critical care, he has remained at the hospital for additional treatment and continues to require care for spinal fractures and partial paralysis.
Since April 2020, Guo has been employed by the Falilai Prefabricated Construction Company in Wuqing District, Tianjin city, about 100km outside of Beijing. In September, Guo’s family posted an appeal online, stating that Falilai has not paid for Guo’s medical fees and that Guo is also owed wages. No one from the company has visited Guo or the family, who have paid many costs attendant to Guo’s recovery. The family also described how Falilai changed its company address and altered the legal representative’s equity, likely to dodge responsibility. In the end, the family requested about 500,000 yuan in compensation.
CLB learned of this case, logged in our Work Accident Map, and we launched an investigation into which official actors are able to hold the company responsible under the law to Guo and his family.
Photograph: zhaoliang70 / Shutterstock.com
The Ministry of Emergency Management imposed administrative penalties on the company but cannot address the labour rights claims
The Wuqing District Ministry of Emergency Management (MEM) learned of the accident through an emergency call made from the scene, and it promptly organized an investigation team that began their work the next day. The investigation report identifies the incident as a workplace safety accident and indicates that Falilai’s legal representative failed to perform her duties, as the company’s safety training was inadequate. Workers lacked adequate protection and were not permitted to raise or ameliorate safety issues, which led to the accident injuring Guo. As a result, the MEM imposed a fine of 250,000 yuan on the company and a fine of 12,150 yuan on the legal representative.
When CLB learned of Guo’s story, we called the MEM on 20 October and spoke to an official surnamed Zhang who was operating the MEM reporting hotline that day. Zhang relayed how the MEM had intervened in the case and listened to CLB’s account of how Guo and his family have been affected by the lack of accountability from Falilai. Zhang stated that the MEM, as a government body responsible for investigating safety incidents, does not have the authority to deal with labour disputes such as wages in arrears, official accreditation of the injury as arising from a workplace accident, and payment of medical expenses for the workplace injuries. Zhang suggested that workers can contact the Human Resources and Social Security Bureau or seek legal remedy on their own.
In response, CLB offered recommendations to the MEM, including that they update their public contact information page, as we found it to contain inaccuracies, and also that the MEM include the district trade union in the city’s emergency response plan, which was issued in 2018. That plan, Comprehensive Emergency Plan for Production Safety Accidents in Wuqing District, Tianjin, does not include the union as one of its member units, so we suggested that the union’s role should be clarified so it has the opportunity to effectively perform its work safety duties.
One week later, the MEM sent CLB a formal, written reply to these recommendations, indicating that the office may take them up.
The district trade union was unaware of the accident and refused to reach out to Guo or his family, claiming administrative burden
After calling the MEM on 20 October, CLB also called the union that same day. Although the Wuqing District Trade Union was listed as a member of the accident investigation team, the union’s general office was not aware of the incident and did not intervene in the case or represent Guo in applying for workplace injury accreditation.
Upon learning of Guo’s injury, the union official, surnamed Han, immediately dismissed CLB’s account, saying, “We have no way to determine the authenticity of this case you brought up. We won’t directly contact a worker just because we see some information online. This is not our normal workflow."
CLB suggested that now, having learned of the situation, the union could call Guo’s wife to verify the incident and offer assistance. To this, the union official insisted that it should be the worker and their family who calls the union, disregarding the practical constraints of the severity of Guo’s injury and the preoccupation of the family in providing care at this time.
The union official went on:
We cannot take the initiative to contact a worker simply because we heard something from Weibo. The amount of information on Weibo is tremendous. It is impossible for us to contact them all on Weibo.... If we directly contact a worker, this would also cause a burden on our human resources. We have to consider this burden.
CLB tried to request the contact information of the union department responsible for establishing enterprise unions in the district, as we wanted to find out whether there is an enterprise union at Falilai. However, the Wuqing union officer refused even this request, stating that CLB is a third party and must send an official letter to ask for the department’s contact information.
Just as we suggested to the MEM that the union should be included in the Wuqing district emergency response plan, so we also recommended to the union that it should take the initiative to request to be a member unit under the plan. CLB also recommended that the union could individually recruit construction workers to join the union instead of relying on enterprises taking initiative to establish unions first.
The union official said she recorded all of our questions and suggestions but concluded that CLB was unlikely to receive a response. Indeed, we left an email address and phone number but have not received a reply.
CLB recommends greater coordination among state actors on accident prevention
China’s work safety supervision system has long been based on top-down administration rather than starting with workers. Government bodies like the MEM, however, have multiple functions of implementing the safety laws, managing enterprises, and conducting supervision. As Guo’s case illustrates, the MEM can only react to accidents and does not have the authority to conduct prevention mechanisms, which necessarily happen on the ground, in the workplace.
On the other hand, trade unions have greater power to actively prevent workplace accidents. The Work Safety Law stipulates that trade unions have the responsibility of supervising workplace safety and representing workers. The law is also clear that if the union does not perform its duties in accident prevention, the relevant personnel should be held accountable. In Guo’s case, the MEM was responsive but had its hands tied, while the union was simply dysfunctional and unwilling to perform its primary purpose. It is the union’s job to represent workers and protect their legal rights and interests.
This is a condensed version of the original Chinese-language story published on 12 November 2021.