In October 2012, former miner and prominent labour rights activist Chen Xiezhong finally lost his long battle with the deadly occupational disease, pneumoconiosis. His dying wish was that his colleagues “will keep pushing until we get compensation.”
Chen was one of several hundred migrant workers who had contracted pneumoconiosis whilst employed in the lead and zinc mines of Ganluo county in the remote southwest of Sichuan. The mines had been forcibly closed by the local government in 2003 and the workers dismissed. Later, when discovered they had pneumoconiosis, they sought redress from the government but encountered nothing but obstacles and harassment. Many gave up after getting a small charitable allowance from the government but many others pledged to fulfill Chen’s wish and push for the occupational disease compensation they were legally entitled to.
One those who continued the struggle, Liu Guangqian, talked to CLB Director Han Dongfang a few months after Chen’s death at the end of 2012.
Like nearly all of his colleagues, Liu only began to notice that his lungs were failing him several years after he had returned home from the mines. Because they had never had health checks, the onset of pneumoconiosis went undetected. It was only in 2006, when Liu was at the terminal stage of the disease that he was finally diagnosed. Two years later, he was spitting blood. Now he is also affected by tuberculosis and heart problems. When he spoke to Han, he had just returned from a four-day course of treatment at a local hospital for occupational illness. He lives at his home in Muchuan, 400 km away from Ganluo. With the mine sealed off and sold to a listed company in the state auction, the stricken former miners have found themselves unable to present any evidence linking their conditions with their careers underground, he said. They have been unable to bring anybody to account or to obtain any meaningful redress for what they have undergone.
Permits for cash
The mine Liu worked at was privately owned, he said. It was operated with little regard for regulations or procedures. Asked by Han if it had ever received any visits from government health inspectors, mandatory under Chinese law, Liu replied, “not once.” The original mine-license had been bought for cash, he said, “and that includes our temporary residence permits. All of that was paid for, and there wasn’t a single photograph on those permits.” The municipal authority of Xichang had evidently doled out the licenses knowing they had not checked that the mine facilities met safety standards, and that they could not guarantee worker safety.
One day, there was an accident in one of the shafts, in which more than 20 miners were killed. “So they stopped production at all of the mines. The notification came from the Ganluo county government, but it was acting on orders from above,” Liu explained. It was then confirmed that all of the mine shafts were unsafe. The government stepped in with a “unified rectification campaign.” Some 200,000-300,000 miners were sent home in what amounted to a mass evacuation. The provincial Department of Land and Resources revoked the licenses and orchestrated the closures.
They got the workers to come out but would not let them go back in again, and later they forcibly sealed the mountainsides. The [then] deputy provincial governor presided over all of this.
According to Liu, the compulsory acquisition was carried out improperly.
The provincial government bought up the mines but they did not go through a public auction, the documentation and licenses weren’t in order. A lot of people were quarreling over money.
Liu was one of several hundred migrant workers from around the city of Leshan who were seeking redress from the local government. Protesting that they had been left completely in the lurch, without occupational injury and disease recognition or even basic social security to fall back on, a determined group of several dozen began petitioning the provincial government and tried to attract media attention. Their case was covered by the Hong Kong news channel Phoenix Television (which is widely watched in China on a subscription basis); this, however, provoked a hostile reaction from the authorities.
As a result of these efforts, though, some of the workers were eventually awarded a 300 yuan monthly allowance, as well as reimbursement of medical costs at Sichuan University’s West China Medical Science Centre. But to Liu and his colleagues, this was little more than a charitable handout. Moreover, it came with strings attached. Said Liu:
We were obliged to sign an agreement with them. It was very explicit. To get the money, they said, we would have to stop making trouble and not do any more illegal petitioning or that kind of thing. If we did make a fuss again, the money would dry up. We were also banned from getting in touch with people like you, journalists, especially overseas journalists, and lawyers. Basically, this was a ‘maintenance of stability’ issue. Our local government did not want us causing trouble.
The tactics worked in some cases. Some of the workers who were in the early stages of pneumoconiosis agreed to sign and were getting up to a thousand yuan in monthly allowances if they were supporting families. Liu said:
They are satisfied with that. So very few people are now participating in this campaign lobbying the government, that’s how it is now. What we want, and what we have not got yet, is a one-time compensation package.
Compensation not charity
In 2011, with the help and advice of lawyers, Liu and his fellow campaigners adopted a new approach and filed lawsuits against the Ganluo and Muchuan county governments. Their aim was to bring to account the regulatory authorities who had issued licenses but never once inspected the mines. On both occasions, the court rejected the lawsuits. Though it went unsaid, it seemed clear government officials implicated in illegal wheeling and dealing surrounding the licensing and improper auctioning off of the mines did not want to be held accountable and local judges were afraid of challenging them. Explained Liu:
The government takeover was compulsory, it was not an acquisition carried out in the proper legal way. Even if we had sued the original private-sector boss, he could have produced documents proving that it was an official decision to close the mines down. Then the government would have been dragged in, as a defendant. That is why the courts would not accept the case. That is the truth of the matter. They are afraid of having to take on the government.
Liu and his colleagues were also concerned about the government’s hostile response to their lawsuits and attempts to get media attention for their cause:
If you take action through legal channels, then later the government will come after you and settle the score. When we went to the media, the government tried to stop them broadcasting it.
Chen Xiezhong, he donated his corneas and body to the West China Medical Science Centre. We should feel proud of him. But the Propaganda Department would not even allow reporters to visit. At the moment, we are oppressed by the government. I feel disheartened.
Han however took a brighter view of the situation. He pointed out that the responsibility for what happened at the Ganluo mines ultimately lay with the authorities who originally issued the mining licenses. Although Liu said they had been reluctant to pursue this course of legal action because they did not have any documentary evidence, Han argued that in a case like this, the burden of proof should be on the government, not the ordinary citizens bringing the suit. The court ought to demand that the relevant government departments produce the documentation. They should be asked why they did not carry out preliminary inspections and why they did not follow procedures. Han also advised Liu to launch litigation not at the local level, but in the provincial capital, at the Chengdu Intermediate People’s Court, in defiance of the procedural requirements.
The local authorities do what they like, they violate laws and procedures, and their leeway is very great. But if you take this to a higher level and sue them at the Chengdu Intermediate People’s Court, you will be taken more seriously, because there, they cannot escape public scrutiny so easily. There is less leeway for illegal behaviour, especially with the media watching. If you file a lawsuit in Chengdu, the prospects would be much better than in Ganluo.
Han strongly urged Liu not to give up. “Although you have only achieved 15 or 20 percent of your aims, you have made some progress, you have obtained a basic allowance, your medical treatment is reimbursed, and that is more than you were expecting when you started. But more than that, if these small victories are repeated across the country, many people could benefit.
History proceeds step-by-step. It is painfully slow, social change really is like this in such a bad environment. With your health as damaged as it is, to achieve any kind of progress in five years under such circumstances really is not easy. I feel you should be proud of what you’ve done and on that basis you should continue, even though the road is long.
This interview was first broadcast on Radio Free Asia's 劳工通讯 in eight episodes in December 2012. And for more details about the nationwide campaign for pneumoconiosis compensation, please CLB’s research report Time to Pay the Bill: China’s obligation to the victims of pneumoconiosis, which is dedicated to Chen Xiezhong.