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report on health & safety

We communicated with five NGOs on health and safety.

OHS did not appear to be integrated into union activity at this stage in Hong Kong.

The NGOs with whom we discussed OHS in detail were:
1 Asia Monitor Resource Centre - AMRC
2 Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee - HKCIC
3 Association for the Rights of Industrial Accident Victims - ARIAV
4 Migrant Workers Documentation Centre ZhuSanJiao Health & Safety Support Network Migrant Workers Culture Centre
5 Ching Jen Labor Health & Safety Service Centre (Taiwan)

The training of workers in health and safety is carried out by the NGOs. In the case of both AMRC and HKCIC it seems that there is close co-operation with the Unions in HKCTU.

The OHS issues on which there are major focus on pneumoconioses: Jewellery Industry (more detail following) and Building Industry - the geology of the south is broadly based on granite and marble. Drilling the foundations for buildings has been extremely basic, ranging from pick and shovel to individual drills. Also mixing cement was often in a bucket, by hand despite the buildings produced being highly sophisticated. Respiratory diseases result extensively.

Silicosis is the major work related lung disease being identified now. Whilst they are sure that there are asbestos related conditions, the work related lung conditions are being subsumed under the heading of TB and the identification and recognition of work related nature is recent development.

AMRC are particularly interested in getting workers to identify the development of injuries themselves. This appears to be a crossover between body mapping to swing toward prevention and barefoot doctors to help identify the conditions and organise appropriate treatment.

AMRC is involved in providing worker’s health and safety training in the region. They are currently publishing material on international workers compensation including papers from us.  AMRC also asked for information on the garment industry, particularly any posters.

HKCIC are the organisation who appeared to co-ordinate the campaign on silicosis in the jewellery industry - Blood Stained Gems. Dust fills the air as thousands of workers, most of them from poverty-stricken provinces, are hunched over their workbenches in foreign invested factories in southern China polishing semi-precious stones which will be sold in luxury shops overseas. Breathing in the suspended dust from the semi-precious stones can lead to fatal lung diseases. Are the workers provided with any protective equipment or is there any ventilation in the factory? In some cases they are not even provided with a face-mask. Over the past few years, about 60 workers in several Hong Kong-invested jewellery factories in Huizhou and Shenzhen have been found to be in the late stages of pneumoconiosis or silicosis (a form of pneumoconiosis), which is also known as "lung dust disease" in China. Many of them have lost the ability to work and the disease is advancing relentlessly. It is incurable.

HKCIC have been working on this issue for at least the last 7 years. Although the Lucky Jewellery workers' plight has received international attention over the last few years – for example, reports have appeared in the New York Times, the Financial Times and the South China Morning Post – the company's owner, Wang Shenghua, has consistently tried to avoid paying compensation.

Most workers afflicted with silicosis in China receive little or even no compensation from their employers. Factory owners run away from their responsibility. They intentionally ignore the law, and sometimes their response on being approached by workers seeking compensation for occupational illness is simply to relocate their factories; sometimes they even establish new companies, so that the previous entity cannot be sued in court.

After lawyers were brought in, with China Labour Bulletin's assistance, to represent the sick and dying workers and after lawsuits were threatened, in early March Lucky Jewellery (Wang) finally agreed, after several years of stalling, to provide three of the worst affected workers with 205,000 Yuan each in compensation and two other affected workers with compensation of 60,000 Yuan each. Their attitude towards outside criticism of the company's occupational health and safety practices can also be seen from the fact that, late last year, Lucky Jewellery initiated libel action in the Hong Kong courts against a HKCIC staff member for having alerted local and international public opinion about their deplorable treatment of its seriously ill former workers.

The other OHS Campaign that both AMRC and HKCIC have been focusing on is cadmium poisoning in the battery industry.

ARIAV deals specifically with OHS/Compensation and, at this stage, appeared to have the least in common with the AAWL RHSP. They have sub groups:

  • Families who have lost members to industrial death;
  • Injured workers who they help with counselling for secondary psych conditions, assisting with retraining and job searching;
  • Pneumoconiosis sufferers particularly from the building industry;

These sub groups are involved in support centres and they try to lobby the government to improve health and safety standards and enforcement as well as the support role for the injured workers.

In Guangzhou, International Capital operates to super-exploit the workers in the industrial centres. In the Industrial Centre that we visited in Panyu there are 80,000 workers. Most of the companies here are electronics manufacturers (egCASIO), there is wafer fabrication, semiconductor assembly, circuit board fabrication and assembly, electroplating and final product assembly. In Panyu District in Guangzhou the Migrant Documentation Workers Centre runs the ZhuSanJiao Health & Safety Support Network and the Migrant Workers Culture Centre.

They have a legal service for ‘workers’ difficulties’. Issues taken to court include unfair dismissals, compensation, salaries and labour insurance. From 1998 they have been able to take 4-6 cases to court a month so they also focus on educating workers how to recognise their own rights and represent themselves. The legal service involves lawyers, legal students and workers.

In Panyu the group also has a cultural centre for the migrant workers who come from throughout China to work in the Industrial Centre. Activities include discussions, a library, dances and the equivalent of a ‘coffee shop’ (without the coffee), that is a place to go and sit down and read or talk with friends and relax. Given that the workers in the industrial centre live in dormitories at work and have limited (if any) previous industrial experience and are migrants at great distance from families, the cultural and social activities encourage collective coherence and confidence among the workers.

They are also building an injured workers’ group who focus on OHS as well as Compensation. They try to reach injured/ill workers and to draw lesson from their experience in the workplaces so that it can be learned how to go for prevention. They try to make the contacts with the injured/ill workers in the hospitals so that they develop leadership skills in prevention as well as so the workers can learn their rights.

We established contact with Ching Jen Labor Health & Safety Service Centre (Taiwan). Most of the time that was spent with them was in Guangzhou so the focus for the Taiwanese and ourselves was to find out about the Panyu group. The Ching Jen Labor Health & Safety Service Centre are an NGO who seems to have a focus on prevention. They are involved in training workers in health and safety, providing information on hazards.

Developments in the Blood on the Gemstones Campaign

At a conference in Beijing in the middle of March Jiang Zuojun, China's Vice-Minister of Health, reported that more than 440,000 people are suffering from pneumoconiosis in China and that about 10,000 new cases emerge every year. Admitting that the real figures could be much higher, he added that more than 140,000 people had died of pneumoconiosis in China since the 1950s and that the number of people afflicted with the disease over the same period exceeded 580,000. Jiang concluded: "The high frequency of occupational diseases in some places is partly due to poor implementation of occupational health and safety standards and lack of protective equipment."

Recently, the hazardous working conditions in jewellery factories in Guangdong sparked a large-scale strike action at a Hong Kong-invested jewellery factory in Foshan City. On 15 March, around 5,000 jewellery workers at the Lian Industrial Co. Ltd's factory in the city's Dafu Industrial Zone went on strike in protest against being continually exposed to the risk of contracting pneumoconiosis, according to mainland media reports. According to the workers, they have to work for more than 10 hours each day in a workplace filled with dust. They are only entitled to one day off work every two months.

The workers at Lian Industrial suspected that medical checkups offered last year by the factory, which reported them to be in normal health, had been a sham. Since February, more than 200 workers have sought independent examinations from the Guangdong Provincial Hospital for Occupational Diseases Control and 12 of them have since been diagnosed with pneumoconiosis, with more cases suspected.

The protest strike at Lian Industrial has received wide news media coverage both on the mainland and in Hong Kong. As the strike continued, as of March 22, local police and labour and health officials also became involved. Witnesses say that more than 40 police vehicles arrived at the factory on 17 March and sealed the main entrance. Subsequently, local government officials told the local news media that more than 1,000 workers had been sent to hospitals in Foshan for further medical examination. At the time of writing, however, the workers diagnosed with silicosis had still received no offers of compensation from their employer.

Report to AAWL Public Meeting 5th April 2005 by Gwynnyth Evans following visit to Hong Kong.

 

 

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