QUINGGOU — It was back in the mid-1990s, amid China’s major economic reforms. Liu Changxia and other men in the village of Qinggou felt it was “time to leave home” because the farm wasn‘t bringing in enough and their families needed to be provided for. The whole country was talking of nothing but economic growth. In the coal-rich rural province of Henan, in east central China, men old enough to work hardly had a choice. Options are limited for low-qualified workers. They had to go down in the mines, and it cost them their lungs.
In that village alone, 19 former miners are now suffering from silicosis. In Europe, this pulmonary infection brings to mind the ills of the industrial revolution, but in 21st century China, it is the primary work-related disease, with 10,592 cases diagnosed in 2012 alone.
But as if “black lungs” aren’t enough of an affliction for these Qinggou families, the judicial procedures are notoriously arduous. Initially, 21 workers were engaged in the legal fight against the mine. But two died in early 2013 without obtaining the necessary funds to pay for treatment.
“It’s unfair,” says Liu Changxia. “We earned very little and had to spend it all for our treatments, and some of us are already dead, although they were really young.” Liu was a team leader until the mine closed temporarily in 2007, during yet another reform, and the men from Qinggou were sent back to their farms.
He and his neighbors describe the obstacle course they have had to navigate to obtain their compensation. First there was the local labor office, where they were not taken seriously. Then the hospital, where the doctors kept diagnosing tuberculosis. After that, they had to go to the local occupational health center. That’s what Liu Changxia did in 2010, only to be told by the local authorities that the prescription period was over.
Then came the mining company’s appeals on every single court decision. The reality of the plaintiffs’ work was finally confirmed in March 2012. But since then, the mine’s directors have asked for the local judge to be replaced by one located closer to the current company headquarters.
And still no sign of compensation for the victims. These weakened men can only helplessly observe the apparent collusion between the mine directors and the local officials against them. “We do understand that the mine is more powerful,” says Liu. “They’re trying to make the procedures last as long as possible, because they know we won’t live long. They’re waiting for us to die.”
Exploited and unprotected
For 12 long years Liu worked in the mine extracting coal, which still accounts for two-thirds of China’s energy consumption. He remembers the roll call every morning at 6:30 a.m., after having walked one hour from home to reach his workplace. And the 40 minutes it took him to climb 1,000 meters underground. Only then would the hardest part begin: Dig, place the dynamite in the walls, walk back some 60 meters, wait 30 minutes to allow the air to circulate, and then load the cart. That is when minors are the more exposed, and the one-RMB masks meant to protect their lungs were rarely provided to them. Some bought theirs with their own money, but most of them never wore any.
Sitting next to his former leader is Sun Zhaohui, 39, a black hat on his head. His case of silicosis is the most advanced. His airways are atrophied, so he breathes in long and slow breaths that sound like snores. He can’t walk to the center of the village, just two steps away, without being completely out of breath. He had to buy a breathing machine, for more than 3,000 RMB ($500), which temporarily limits the suffocating sensation. He says he must be hospitalized four or five times a year, like the others, and finds it unbearable to be waiting so long for compensation because, since he can’t work anymore, he is struggling to pay for his treatments.
Zhang Shiqian, a lawyer who is helping the workers gratis, is aware of many similar cases. Most of these workers were in no position to demand a contract and as a result now struggle to prove that their work is what caused their current condition. “They have about a 30% chance to win the trial, provided they have any document that proves they were indeed employed at the mine,” Zhang says. “The disease finishes the workers before they see the end of the procedures,” he says, citing several cases of people who recently died.
Malicious mine companies
Faced with never-ending appeals, many lose hope. Wang Decheng, who worked for different mines between 1976 and 2007, did manage to obtain a silicosis diagnosis from the occupational health authorities in 2009. But the mine from which he had retired two years before refused to give him an employer’s certificate. After it was privatized, the company changed names several times and told him they couldn’t find the official stamp anymore. So the court in turn explained to him that he was missing crucial documents.
A member of the Communist Party in 1980s and of the official workers’ union, Wang was, ironically, in charge of writing slogans about workplace health and safety. He was particularly proud of this one, which had been posted all around the mine: “Better to hear the miners’ complaints than their families crying.”
He resolved to fight for his compensation when he saw a former miner driven to the point of having his lungs cut open to prove that he suffered from silicosis. But now that his $15-a-month pension doesn’t even cover his medication, he wonders if there is any point in seeking justice.