When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Miners in China's Henan Province
Miners in China's Henan Province
Harold Thibault

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.

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Stories from the best international journalists.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Society

The U.S.-Colombia 'War On Drugs' Has Failed: What Comes Next?

The Biden administration and Colombia's new government seem to agree on the need for a new approach to drugs policy. But will they be able to find support in their countries to forge a new strategy?

Interpol officers accompanying the sister of Colombian drug lord "Otoniel" before her extradition to the U.S.

Luis Carvajal Basto

BOGOTÁ - Some early directives by Colombia's new president Gustavo Petro suggest he sees the 2016 peace accords with the The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as failed or at best unfinished. Founded in 1964, FARC, the armed wing of the Communist Party, have been fighting the longest-running armed insurgency in the Western hemisphere.

Signed in 2016 under former president Juan Manuel Santos Calderón, the accords were meant to bring peace to the country, yet that peace has been patchy. This is not because another communist guerrilla force in the country, the National Liberation Army (ELN), has refused to join the peace arrangements, nor is it because of the last government's failure to implement the accord.

The problem clearly concerns drug trafficking, which has continued unperturbed since 2016. While drug use remains illegal, drug trafficking, which has long helped FARC fund its insurgency, will always be highly profitable and foment violence. So is it time to decriminalize drug use?

Keep reading...Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Stories from the best international journalists.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
Already a subscriber? Log in
Writing contest - My pandemic story
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch VideoShow less
MOST READ