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Drill workers' battle highlights need for improved conditions
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It is heart-wrenching to learn that many migrant workers who have contracted deadly occupational diseases must endure further hardship to get due compensation from their employers.

One case involves about 170 migrant workers from Hunan Province who are claiming compensation in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. They contracted pneumoconiosis after working as drill workers in Shenzhen, China Youth Daily reported on August 10.

Pneumoconiosis is a lung disease that results from breathing in dust from coal, graphite or man-made carbon over a long period of time.

Most of those workers could not get compensation from former employers due to a lack of evidence of their employment, said the report.

As most of them had finished work in Shenzhen years ago (pneumoconiosis usually has an incubation period of several years or longer), it is difficult for them to find anything that could serve as proof of their former employment as long as their former employers refused to cooperate.

The good news is the Shenzhen government had promised to give compensation ranging from 70,000 yuan (US$10,249) to 130,000 yuan to all those migrant workers who were suffering from pneumoconiosis.

However, the problem that remains is how to better ensure the rights of migrant workers to compensation if they develop an occupational disease.

Imperfect law

Many people are familiar with the case in which Zhang Haichao, a worker in Henan Province, had to undergo a chest operation to prove he had a work-related ailment after his former employer refused to pay compensation because the local occupational disease authority denied he had developed the illness.

The root of the problem lies in China's Law on Prevention and Control of Occupational Diseases.

The law requires that employers provide information related to occupational health and health monitoring and protection when necessary to help facilitate the diagnosis and verification of occupational diseases.

This equates to requiring employers to prove their own guilt, which is completely impractical.

Besides, according to the law, only medical institutions designated by provincial authorities can diagnose occupational disease.

That excludes many large hospitals which are capable of making the diagnosis. In Zhang's case, although he was diagnosed with pneumoconiosis in several large hospitals in Beijing, the Zhengzhou Occupation-related Diseases Control and Prevention Center, the only authority permitted to diagnose occupational diseases in Henan Province, denied the truth.

It was not until Zhang underwent the operation that his pneumoconiosis was finally identified. Obviously, Zhang need not have suffered so much had the law been more employee-oriented.

Better prevention

For Zhang and many other workers who have contracted deadly occupational diseases, compensation, no matter how high, can not save their lives.

What migrant workers need most is a better working environment and better disease prevention measures.

In the Shenzhen case, the employers hardly adopted any protective measures for workers working in a dusty environment.

According to Xu Zhihui, one of the migrant workers, the only means they used to prevent inhaling dust was wearing a dust-proof mask, which would not be replaced by a new one until the old one fell into pieces.

In fact, it is a prevailing problem that many migrant workers have to risk their lives in a hostile working environment.

This is especially the case if they work for small and medium-sized enterprises.

For example, a report by Yangtze Daily early this month said that less than one percent of the small and medium-sized enterprises in Hubei Province take the standard occupational disease prevention measures for their workers.

Economists often say that China's rapid economic development is largely attributable to a population dividend. And the majority of that population is migrant workers. How could our economy enjoy the fruits of migrant workers at the cost of their lives with a clear conscience?

(Shanghai Daily August 24, 2009)

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