Who is responsible when a worker dies inside the factory dormitory?

27 June 2019
When 36-year-old Li Zhangjian died of a head injury just before the Lunar New Year holiday, his family did what many other migrant worker families do – they traveled down from their hometown in Henan to the luggage factory in Dongguan where Li was employed to demand compensation.

On the morning of 2 March, after protracted negations failed to reach a satisfactory conclusion, the family hung a memorial banner outside the factory gate, set-off firecrackers and made offerings to the dead inside the factory compound. The factory management called the police who quickly arrived and attempted to mediate the dispute. But then, a group of a dozen or so unidentified men also arrived and forcibly ejected the family from the factory compound while the police looked on.

The case highlights not only the difficulties poor migrant workers have in getting compensation from powerful factory bosses, but also the complicated legal issue of just who is responsible when a worker dies in a non-work-related incident.

In Li’s case, the Southern Metropolis Daily Dongguan Edition reported that he had started to feel unwell after a year-end banquet for factory employees on the evening of 22 January. However, factory security guards refused to take him to the hospital, claiming that he was drunk, and ordered him back to the dormitory. Around three o’clock in the morning, Li suddenly got up, hit his head and fell to the ground. He was eventually taken to hospital around six in the morning but died a few days later of a brain injury.

Li’s family claim the factory should compensate them because it failed to provide proper emergency medical care. The factory, and the police, claimed that Li simply got drunk and hit his head. The police urged the family to seek legal redress but they refused and petitioned the factory directly instead. Even if the family could afford a lawyer to file a civil lawsuit against the factory, their chances of winning would be slim, with the police backing up the factory management’s version of events.

The key issue is whether or not the factory security guards on duty that night should have taken Li to hospital when he complained of feeling unwell. When I was in Dongguan last week, I asked other two security guards at a factory in a neighbouring township what they would do in a similar situation. They replied immediately that, of course, if an employee was feeling unwell, for whatever reason and at whatever time, they should be taken to hospital.

Other factory security guards and managers clearly don’t think the same and seek to deny any responsibly when things go wrong. And, as things stand at the moment, they can probably get away with not taking responsibly because there are no clear legal guidelines related to the liability of employers in non-work-related accidents.

However, if a worker’s wages are so low that he has no option but to sleep in the factory dormitory and eat at the factory canteen, and has to ask permission to leave the factory compound, then the factory owner should accept responsibility for that worker’s wellbeing while at work and off work. If a worker dies in a non-work-related accident in the factory dormitory, and his family loses its breadwinner, the factory should at the very least take care of the family’s funeral expenses and compensate them for loss of earnings for a reasonable period of time.

Of course, it is possible that some families might try to extort money from an employer, but as long as that employer makes a reasonable accommodation in good faith, then they will almost certainly be protected by the law from such extortion. Unfortunately, it seems that the boss of the luggage factory in Tangxia did not see it that way, and simply hired a bunch of thugs to throw a bereaved family out of his factory.
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