Chinese migrant workers, mutilated in the name of economic growth
Guanzghou (AsiaNews) - The Communist Congress which just ended proclaimed impressive slogans in favor of the labor force in China, which according to leadership is the "true hero" of the national economic miracle. Yet the situation of internal migrants, a silent army that across the nation comprises between 250 and 300 million workers, is dramatic. Between work-related accidents, mutilations and social discrimination, these workers are paying for everone.
One of the most dramatic cases of recent times, reported the South China Morning Post, is that of Ou Changqun: while working at a heavy metal factory two years ago she was involved in an accident that tore off her arm. After 7 operations what remained was a disabled right arm and a hospital bill to pay: "Immediately after the accident I went into a coma due to excessive bleeding, and stayed in an intensive care unit for three days. I had not signed a labour contract with the factory owner, so my expenses were not paid by the company."
Her employer even went so far as to suspend her medical treatment for the first emergency interventions: "I was forced to petition the local government for a year before getting justice." She worked six days a week, 9 hours a day for four years, earning 2,000 yuan per month (about 190 euro). But the cost of her operations reached 120,000 yuan, paid by her employer only after a year and a half of continuous legal battles. Now she does not know what will happen, because with she is unable to work with only one arm.
He Xiaobo is a trade unionist who lost three fingers in an industrial accident in Foshan in 2006: "Ou's story is typical of millions of migrant workers who have been disabled working in the cities of Guangdong in the last 30 years. Dongguan and Foshan are the cities with the highest incidence of serious cases, and for this reason have huge surgical departments, especially for hand and arm reattachment surgery. Each year in Foshan alone there are at least 50,000 violent incidents, three times the government's estimate."
Liu Kaiming, director of the Institute for Contemporary Observation in Shenzhen, has done field research according to which at least 60,000 migrant workers - out of a total of 30 million in the province - are disabled every year on the job: "The number of new disabled workers in Shenzhen is around 12,000 per year, plus those of other industrial cities. But even experienced labour rights experts have underestimated the serious work injury situation in Guangdong."
According to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, in China there are presently 8.2 million persons disabled as a result of workplace accidents. Official figures show that the majority of them live in the southern province, which last year furnished 2.9 million of them with medical and living expense subsidies. In 2009, according to the government, 175,602 migrants were wounded: 18% of the national total.
According to trade unionists in Hong Kong, however, these numbers are incorrect because they include only those who have reached an agreement of some kind with the employer for compensation after being injured. Chris Chan King-chi, a sociologist at the University of Hong Kong City, says that in the "black factories" - those unregistered, illegal or too small to be considered by the government - the incidents are not reported.
The hospital numbers confirm this terrible trend. Yu Wenxue, director of the private Nanhai hospital of Foshan, explains that he receives each day between 100 and 200 workers who have been injured in the assembly lines. All available beds were fully booked for the entire year: "99% of our patients are immigrants." In seven years, the Shunde Heping surgical hospital has increased the number of its beds from 30 to 660; in 2004 it operated on the fingers or hands of 3,000 people, and the number grows by 25% every year.
The cost of the operations, however, risks distancing many migrants from the possibility to return to a normal life. Reattaching a finger costs between 20-30,000 yuan, while for more difficult cases requiring several operations, the cost comes to 150,000 yuan. Most migrant workers earn at most 1,800 yuan per month, which includes the several hours of overtime every day; in addition, most employers refuse to provide compensation for injuries.
Zhou Litai, a lawyer, has been fighting for the rights of migrants since the mid-90s and has taken part in more than 3,000 lawsuits against companies that refused to pay what was due: "More than 10,000 migrant workers lose their fingers and hands in Shenzhen's Baoan and Longgang districts each year. In the late 1990s, the labour laws only required factory owners to pay 33,000 yuan as compensation." Since then the price has gone up to 500,000 yuan for the most serious cases, but the workers have to wait an average of 1,074 days before getting their due.