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Welfare physical exams cause panic
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On November 11, Saturday, blood collecting vehicles from the Foshan Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Guangdong Province drove to the Foshan Premier Co. Ltd. Eight blood-collection spots were set up. In two days 3,000 employees got their blood evaluated.

This incident caused panic among some employees. They feared that the company would fire them if they were confirmed to be HBsAg carriers before the labor contract law and the employment promotion law took effect on January 1, 2008. Several employees complained to the media, as well as labor and health departments, that the company was practicing discrimination by carrying out these physical exams.

Also on November 11, some companies in Foshan City received the Regulations on Employment Services and Management, which go into effect on January 1 of next year. According to these regulations, employers must not set the Hepatitis B virus serology index as a physical exam standard except for those jobs prohibiting Hepatitis B virus carriers by law.

Due to media pressure the Premier Company stopped HBsAg checks on November 13.

Later on November 19 the company made a public statement that the free physical check up was carried out in accordance with mandatory labor laws and the Law on Prevention and Control of Occupational Diseases. It was also done for the welfare of their employees.

Welfare or discrimination?

Xiaofang is a company employee. She was nervous when she heard that they would hold physical exams because she is an HBsAg carrier.

"They say that the physical check up is for our welfare. The physical exam only includes a few items. I don't know what would happen if they found out," Xiaofang said. She was worried that the company would fire her.

If Xiaofang refused to have the physical check up then the company would think that she had a "problem". So she finally had the check up and worried afterwards.

Local health education volunteers carried out a survey about the physical check ups. They felt that the company had violated regulations launched by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security and the Ministry of Health in May of this year. The rules prohibited employers from setting the Hepatitis B virus serology index as a physical exam standard unless the nature of the job might help spread the virus. The regulation also asked medical institutions to protect the privacy of carriers.

"We are very surprised. Our employees misunderstand us. We have never said that we would fire them." After several days of silence, Zhang Xiuping, head of the personnel department of the company, told China Youth Daily, "The free physical check up is part of the benefit package for employees who have worked here more than a year. The physical check up not only includes a Hepatitis B virus serology index check but also chest fluoroscopy and blood work. Senior officials also get these physical examinations; we're not discriminating in any form or fashion."

Zhang emphasized that they also carried out physical exams in 2005 and no employees were fired at that time.

On November 19, China Youth Daily found the 2005 physical check up report in Pan Liwen's computer. Pan is the vice office director of the Foshan Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Indeed, 5,700 employees had a physical exam from August 24 to September 3. Xiaofang also said that she never heard that the company had fired any HBsAg carriers.

Nevertheless, Xiaofang doubted the true purpose of the physical check ups, because "If it is really for our health, why did they stop it?"

Jian Dayi, an official from the Premier Company, said that they did not know the regulations and they did not receive any requests from employees for refusing the physical. Jian also said that they knew the regulations now and had stopped conducting the Hepatitis B virus serology index check on November 12 but they would continue checks in other areas.

Items of the physical check are few

According to a doctor in the Medical Examination Center of the Foshan Traditional Chinese Medical Hospital who conducted collective physical examinations for Premier Company, the company reviewed the prices of all items in the medical examination center. Yu Shouyi, a doctor in charge of the hospital's medical examinations, said the Premier Company then selected four items: hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg), liver function, blood cell analysis and chest x-ray.

The Premier Company prearranged for about 10,500 people to undergo the examination, which started on October 29 and ended on November 17. During this period of time the company ceased demanding the HBsAg check.

Why did the Premier Company only require four items in their welfare physical check up? The person in charge of the physical check ups for the company explained that the company had two doctors and four nurses to carry out basic physical and because of a limited budget they just selected these four items.

They said that the physical check up budget allocated for each employee was 100 yuan. But after investigating it turned out that the actual cost of the four items was only 30 to 40 yuan per person. The company retorted that the money saved would be allocated for more entertainment activities among their employees.

The privacy of the sufferers should be protected

Pan Liwen with the Foshan Traditional Chinese Medical Hospital said that the hospital and the Premier Company have an intimate relationship. Regarding this issue she wished to protect the privacy of those suffering from disease.

The Foshan Institute for the Prevention and Control of Occupational Diseases listed those careers that require examinations confirming or denying hepatitis B surface antigen. Workers in contact with the following poisonous products are obliged to check their hepatitis B surface antigen via a physical check up examination: trichloroethylene, chloroprene, chloroethylene, TNT and others.

Employees from the Premier Company are not on this list; hence the company cannot oblige them to take a test for hepatitis B surface antigen during a routine physical examination.

The Premier Company has promised to protect the privacy of those who have already been screened regarding this item. Results will be given to the employees directly without informing the company.

( by Li Xiaohua and Chen Lin, November 27, 2007)

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