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Ministry: Uphold law, protect work health rights
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The Ministry of Health has called for stricter enforcement of a law aimed at preventing occupational health problems.

The call comes as the ministry has been working to guarantee health services for the country's large working population.  Despite the progress that has been made in enforcing the prevention law, which took effect in May 2002 to protect workers' health rights, many people are still at risk of contracting occupational diseases, Vice-Minister of Health Chen Xiaohong told a working conference in which provincial health officials took part on Tuesday.

"Occupational health problems and work-related ailments are still taking huge tolls, both human and economic, on China," Chen said.

Such illnesses pose a potential threat to some 200 million Chinese people and cause 300 billion yuan (about US$40 billion) of economic losses every year, statistics from State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) show.

"The experience of recent years shows that (occupational diseases) are more than a public health problem. They are an important factor affecting stability and harmony," Chen said.

Disagreements between stricken workers and employers have resulted in an increasing number of public petitions and labor disputes in recent years.

Last year, unresolved medical disputes involving occupational diseases were the fifth most common form of public petition submitted to the Ministry of Health, Xue Xiaolin, a division director in charge of handling petitions at the ministry, said.

Some of the longer-running disputes have blown up into mass incidents, which severely undermines public security, Xue told China Daily.

Because of the long duration and strong passions involved, these occasionally violent mass incidents are getting harder to resolve, Xue said.

In the case of a violent incident in the southern boomtown of Huizhou, Guangdong Province, police were dispatched to break up a crowd of mostly migrant workers who had set fire to some police cars, Xue said.

"The workers involved said they wanted compensation for treatment for work-related diseases," Xue said.

"Chinese workers have a growing sense of their rights, but the extreme approach doesn't work and usually worsens the situation," Chen said.

Local health administrations that recognize and diagnose work-caused health problems should strictly abide by the law and uphold people's rights, Chen said.

"Health officials must practice self-discipline and must not be influenced by employers who want to evade responsibility," Chen said.

He also said the government will consider shouldering medical fees. At present, either labor insurance or the employers themselves must cover the fees, but only if a contract is signed beforehand, according to the law.

(China Daily October 11, 2007)

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