In early 2009, army veteran Li Shikuan got a temporary job through an acquaintance on a construction project managed by the Yuechi Electric Power Construction Corporation, based in nearby Guang’an, Sichuan, the hometown of China’s architect of economic reform, Deng Xiaoping.
The actual construction project was about 600 kilometres away in Zhengzhou, the capital Henan. After leaving for Zhengzhou, Li kept in regular contact with his family by phone but, at the end of 2009, he stopped calling. On 20 January 2010, the family suddenly got a phone call from Yuechi Power telling them to meet Li at the train station. Within minutes of arriving, Li lost consciousness and was rushed to the hospital. The doctors were able to save Li’s life but this once healthy man now suffers from severe cerebral dysfunction and remains hospitalized and bedridden to this day.
For months on end, Li’s daughter Li Jinchun went to the offices of the Yuechi county government, the Guang’an municipal government and the Sichuan provincial government to ask for assistance. In the end, she travelled to Beijing to petition the authorities there. Eventually the petition office secured a payment of 70,000 yuan to cover medical expenses. However, because she has not been able to produce an employment contract or other written documentation as evidence of her father's employment, she has not been able to bring a lawsuit against Yuechi Power for additional work-related illness compensation.
In October 2010, CLB Director Han Dongfang interviewed Li Jinchun about her father’s accident and the family’s long struggle for compensation. When Li answered the phone, she was initially warily, asking where Han had seen her internet post asking for help and whether or not he was genuinely interested in her father’s case:
So many people have been calling recently that I don’t know who's on the up and up and who really wants to try to help us find a solution. Many callers have pretended to be from some radio station, but afterwards I never heard from them again. I've had calls from Sichuan Radio, from CTS TV (a Taiwanese network), from all sorts of broadcasters. I also got a phone call from Let's Talk About Law (a popular CCTV programme). Some even pretended to be from Sichuan TV’s Golden Time! I've watched that show, and it's not bad. Every time I get a phone call is the last I hear from that caller.
Dumped at the train station
Eventually, Li agreed to talk about her father’s situation. His employer, Yuechi Power, had signed a contract with the State Grid Corporation to lay high-tension cables in Zhengzhou, and Li had been sent to Zhengzhou to work on that project site. Out of the blue, on 20 January, the family got a phone call from the power company telling them to meet Li at the train station nearest to their home in Nanchong. Initially, the only thing amiss Li Jinchun noticed about her father was that his voice sounded hoarse and that he found it difficult to talk.
I asked the labour contractor what was wrong with my dad. He told me that my father had a bad cold and a throat infection which he hadn't quite shaken and that's why he was hoarse. Then he and his colleagues turned round and walked away before he had even finished talking. Less than five minutes later, my dad was in a critical condition.
The family immediately got a taxi and rushed him to a hospital. His pupils were dilated, he had no strength in his limbs and he was shaking all over.
A doctor told us there was nothing they could do to save him. Of course we pleaded with him to do everything possible. Later, we had my father transferred to another hospital. After a series of tests, they told us that he was suffering from a kind of cerebral dysfunction, which the doctor called tardive dyskinesia,* caused by carbon monoxide poisoning.
The doctors estimated that he had been poisoned at least one month earlier. Li said she had overheard the labour contractor who hired her father admitting to the doctor that he had indeed suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning while at work.
We were on the phone to the doctor in the hospital and we could hear the labour contractor talking with him. The contractor told him that it was a case of carbon monoxide poisoning. Later we had some tests done, including an MRI and a full medical check-up, which proved that he was not suffering from any (pre-existing) illness; and that it was without doubt a case of carbon monoxide poisoning.
However, when an official from Yuechi Power came to the hospital and realised just how serious Li’s condition was, the company refused to accept any responsibility and denied that Li had suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning at the Zhengzhou worksite. They also refused to tell his family the name and location of the worksite he had been employed at.
Despite her best efforts, Li Jinchun was unable to get any information from her father’s former co-workers: “Many of them were relatives or neighbours of the labour contractor. Even if they had wanted to tell me, they wouldn't have dared,” she said.
Li travelled to Zhengzhou and visited several hospitals hoping to find the medical records of her father’s hospitalization in the city – but all to no avail.
Li Shikuan currently suffers from severe memory loss and cannot remember the dates of his employment at Yuechi Power but Li Jinchun believes it was for at least for one year. However Li did not have his employment contract with him when he returned home and the power company later categorically denied that he had ever been employed there.
The company my father worked for was by the sound of it a big enterprise: the State Grid Corporation. When the accident occurred, my dad was wearing a State Grid Corporation work uniform. They won't admit it, so there's nothing anyone can do.
If we go to court, we are bound to lose. Why? Because we haven't even been able to find out the location where he was working.
Petitioning in Beijing
Eventually, Li Jinchun decided to petition the higher authorities:
The local government ignored me. I then went to the provincial government, but they still ignored me. I had to go all the way to Beijing to petition the authorities before anyone paid attention.
In Beijing, Li tried to submit some materials supporting her claim to the national petitions office but was intercepted by officials from the Beijing office of the Sichuan provincial government and was sent home. Eventually, Yuechi Power gave the Gaoping District Petitions Office in Nanchong 70,000 yuan, which was then transferred to Li’s family to cover “medical expenses for the treatment of tardive dyskinesia caused by carbon monoxide poisoning.”
Yuechi Power refused to cover any subsequent medical expenses so Li Jinchun went back to Beijing in search of a more equitable settlement but “so far the matter has not been taken care of.”
Li said she does not expect compensation to fall into her lap. “The way I see it, that's just not how the world works.” However, on Han’s advice, she does now plan contact a local legal assistance centre in order to further pursue the family’s case.
* Tardive is a specific term used to describe secondary dystonia or dyskinesias that are specifically attributed to exposure to specific drugs (“drug-induced”).