The Dilemma of Occupational Victims in China

Becky Fung and Francine Chan

Under the coldest weather since the 1975, the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Para Games came to a conclusion on 19 December. In the eight-day games, China dominated the competition with 185 gold medals, 118 silver and 88 bronze. ‘The 2010 Asian Para Games has been a complete success. The athletes set examples not only for disabled persons but also for all of us. We are confident that the Asian Para Games flame, together with our logo ‘We Cheer, We Share, We Win’, will spread the spirit of humanitarianism to all corners of Asia.’ announced the official website of the Guangzhou Asian Para Games.

Behind the Asian Para Games, the hidden disabled occupational victims
Ironically, while screening news on the Asian Para Games, I was answering a call from the occupational victim Wu Siu Kong, age 34, whose hometown is Hubei, China. Three of his fingers were cut by a punching machine in an occupational accident. After the two-month medical treatment and six months of following the legal procedure, he finally received a notice of ‘Level Six’1 disability confirmation from the labour department. Here he has returned to the factory, waiting for the manager to discuss his compensation with him. He has called the manager twice in the last two weeks, but both times, the manager avoided his calls. Wu is very worried. Since Chinese New Year is round the corner, he wanted to resign and go back to his home town. But since the boss has been delaying the discussion, he wanted to ask our advice on whether he should stay or leave the city. If he stays, it would be difficult to afford the living cost; since last month (January), the factory has stopped paying him. But if he goes back home, after the Chinese New Year Wu would still have to come back to the factory to negotiate for the compensation.

Wu is one of the migrant workers in the hundreds of thousands of occupational victims.

Year after year, while a number of injured workers are looking forward to the reunion with their families once a year, at the same time, a great number of them are struggling to stay in the city for compensation of their work injuries. State Administration of Work Safety spokesman Huang Yi, reported that there were 380,000 national incidents in 2009.  There were nearly 1,000 incidents per day.  The number of deaths caused by accidents was 83,196, i.e. roughly 220 people died per day.

A desk-top research sharing the bloody picture on the Occupational Accidents
Research was done during May-November in 2010. The existing three sources of the figures on the number of occupational accidents can only provide a limited picture on occupational accidents in China. Despite this, at least we can get an idea of the real situation, problems and challenges in China.
The general picture we get from the media, newspapers show there are more than 10,000 cases of occupational accidents per year. The data from 1999-2008 are set below. Some of the reports also show more than 6,000 people died in 2006.

In the media, usually the collective cases are presented. The collective cases are usually related to occupational diseases like silicosis or poisoning. Individual injured cases are often not presented.
Table 1 and table 2 show the trend of an annual 15-20% increase in the number of occupational victims from the government statistics. However, it only represents cases which were under legal processing, which only reveals half of the facts. Another half of the occupational victims became invisible due to difficulties or failure in going through the legal processes.

Table 1. The general figures of occupational accidents between 1999-2004, from media

YearOccupational Injuries (cases)Occupational Diseases (cases)Total (cases)

Remarks: The cases above selected by the media are usually the most serious cases. That means one case involves more than one worker.

The difficulty in claiming back compensation
In PRC China, the legal processing of work injury compensation is regulated by the State Law of Social Security. A more detailed set of ‘Injury Insurance Regulations’ are issued by different provinces. According to the ‘Injury Insurance Regulations’, an injured worker must go through the two steps of identification before getting compensation: the ‘Identification of occupational injuries’ (gongshang rending) and the ‘Identification of the ability to work’ (laodong nengli jianding). The former is used to identify the injury is caused by job-related issues; the latter is used to identify the level of disability. Yet even before these painstaking and time-consuming legal procedures, the premise is that the injured workers have to submit their labour contracts to prove the labor relations. This is one of the acute difficulties of many injured workers. From a report conducted by Dagongzhe Centre (DGZ), ‘Executive Summary of the China Labour Contract Law Implementation Survey, 2009’ on the implementation of China’s Labour Contract Law (LCL) in the Pearl River Delta region (PRD):

’The percent of respondents having a written labour contract in the PRD is 67.30% and 83% in the YRD.  Few respondents have a permanent contract. On the whole, about 75% of respondents report having written labour contracts with their employer in the YRD and PRD. The common contract period is one to three years. 8% of respondents have permanent contracts. Enterprises with or below 100 employees were found unlikely to sign labour contracts at all.’

Table 2. Compensation insurance and industrial injury insurance cases in 2005-2008


People joined industrial injury insurance at year endCpmared with the previous yearPeople identified asCompared with the previous yearPeople identified as disabledCompared with the previous year
2008137,872,324+11.7%1,180,000+18.6% +25.2%

Looking into more details in this badly mutilated number
In reality, more than 56.7% of the workers have not applied for the identification of occupational injuries under the legal processing. They usually choose to discuss with their company and get a lump sum compensation and then leave. In 2009, one of the worker services center followed 409 occupational injured workers at hospital, in which only 232 workers tried to get compensation though legal processing. In this sense, the figures from government can only reflect 50-60% of the reality of the number of occupational accidents in China.

The increasing number of occupational diseases
There are cumulative 722,730 reported cases of occupational diseases in between 1949-2009. In 2009, there are 18,128 new reported cases of occupational diseases. They are mainly in the mining industry (41.38%), non-ferrous metals industry (9.33%) and metallurgical industry (6.99%).

Since 2001, the most serious occupational disease has been silicosis. More than 91.89% new cases in 2009 are silicosis with 14,495 people suffered and 748 dead. As far as the most serious occupational disease, silicosis, is concerned, the number of years of dust exposure to develop the disease has shortened. In 2005, 1,971 cases (21.9%) were recorded from 21 provinces with actual dust exposure less than 10 years, while 3,420 new cases were reported in 2008, about 31.58% of the total.

The second most common form of occupational disease is through occupational poisoning with 2,184 people suffered and 21 people dead. The three chemicals, lead (56.59%), benzene (10.88%) and arsenic (8.63%) are the major causes of occupational poisoning. Benzene poisoning has caused 22 cases of leukemia. (2009 Report on Occupational disease prevention and control, Ministry of Health, PRC).

The data uncovered in statistics has also shown that outbreaks of occupational diseases are concentrated in specific industries and often appeared as mass incidents. One of the well-known cases is concerned with the outbreak of cadmium poisoning in four subsidiary factories of Gold Peak (GP) Batteries in mainland China as well as in Hong Kong. More than 20 workers were confirmed as poisoned with cadmium and an addition of 400 cases of excessive exposure to cadmium.

Although there are always questions on the official data, it still acts as a good starting point to understand the current situation. It should be noted that the real figures on occupational diseases are far more than the government statistics.

Concluding remarks
While China is famous for the name of ‘the world’s factory’ with labor-intensive manufacturing, under the glittering façade of the economic miracle lies another side of the story. With millions of migrant workers from China’s poor regions moving to the cities, they create tremendous profits for the capitalists but for the workers, the reward could be a lost finger or even the loss of ability to work for the rest of their life. It is obvious that occupational health and safety conditions have not kept pace with the nation’s breakneck industrialization. No actual figures of occupational accidents are recorded, but it is known that over a million of workers are injured every year with a death toll of nearly 100 thousand.

As shown in the research, we believe that the official figures only show 50-60% of the real situation. Countless other cases go unreported and victims keep struggling in both physical suffering and the tension in the legal processing. It is essential for the authorities concerned to face up to the drawbacks of the existing laws and regulations on occupational health and safety and carry out more stringent surveillance on small and medium enterprises. To show the real cost of China’s production on workers’ lives, there is still an urgent need to develop a more comprehensive system in compiling the statistics on occupational accidents and diseases.

1.    According to the Regulation of Work-Related Injury Insurances, impairment in work functions is classified into 10 disability classes, from Class 1, the most severe, to Class 10, the mildest. The English translation of this Regulation is available at: