On 28 October, a court in the heart of China’s coal country reduced its original compensation award of 490,000 yuan to a former coal miner suffering from second-stage pneumoconiosis to 270,000 yuan, after the mine owner had refused for nearly a year to comply with the court order.
As the court date loomed, a reporter from the Beijing Times travelled to Datong in Shanxi to talk to the miner Zhong Guangwei about his debilitating and fatal illness and his three year struggle for justice.
China Labour Bulletin, which has long-supported the victims of pneumoconiosis in China, has translated the original article, published on Sunday 31 October, in full below.
A coal miner with pneumoconiosis fights for his rights
“Every single cent that is being lowered, I have exchanged with my life!” Former coal mine worker, Zhong Guangwei, now suffering from second-stage pneumoconiosis, shouted this at the mine owner, before coughing violently. This is a scene from the hearing held on 28 October at the Southern Suburbs Court in Datong, Shanxi.
Originally, the court had ordered the mine owner to pay 490,000 yuan, but the mine owner refused to fulfil his legal obligations. Looking at the numerous loan records, and dragging his failing body, Zhong reluctantly lowered his compensation demand to 350,000 yuan, but the mine owner still complained that it was too much, and was only willing to pay 100,000 yuan.
Zhong eventually agreed to accept 270,000 yuan as compensation in a mediated settlement. If all goes well, he will receive this amount of money next Wednesday, and then proceed to Nanjing for medical treatment. Zhong says, given his worsening medical condition and long, exhausting battle for compensation, he had no choice but to compromise in the end.
Pneumoconiosis is a chronic occupational illness that affects the whole body, and is due to long-term inhalation of rock dust. Once inside the lungs, the dust leads to pervasive fibrosis (scarring) of lung tissue. A typical symptom is coughing, accompanied by chest pain. This is very obvious in Zhong Guangwei. At the hearing on 28 November, Zhong could not stop coughing, and was downing painkillers with cold water.
When Zhong started in the mines in November 2006, he was still a young and robust fellow of 33 years, healthy and strong. However, poverty was the biggest problem confronting him then. Married for close to ten years, with two daughters, it was not that he had only four bare walls to his name - he did not even own a home. Zhong knew that life in the coal mine is very tough, but when he looked at his wife and daughters, he felt that he had no fear of hard work.
The privately-owned Zhulinsi Coal Mine is located in Yungang township in the Southern Suburbs district of Datong. Zhong’s work involved drilling and breaking up rocks, “which sounds safer than coal mining, but when the pneumatic drill starts up, you could barely see anything in the dust storm, and have to shout in order to communicate with co-workers just couple of metres away.” At the end of the shift, Zhong was covered in dust, and no one, not even his wife, could recognise him walking down the main street.
Poor conditions, heavy work - some walked off the job after two or three days. Not only did Zhong stay on, he often worked double shifts. Others worked six to seven hours a day; he was working over ten hours. “I made more money like that; I could get six to seven thousand yuan every month. In 2006, this was considered a high salary.” Zhong Guangwei was very pleased at that time.
Working through the pain
High risks are inherent in a high-paying job. In March 2007, Zhong experienced discomfort in his lungs, and was coughing constantly. At a small clinic, he was treated for a cold and given some anti-inflammatory medication. Even when the coughing worsened, he didn’t want to stop working to seek medical help. He got his wife, who had been staying in their home village all this time, to come stay with him. Every day, before he got off work, his wife would ask the doctor to come to their place to carry out a drip infusion. “Later on, the pain became unbearable, but upon thinking that the survival of my family depends on me, I gritted my teeth and continued working.”
In August 2007, when Zhong’s cough did not improve, the doctor initially treated him for pulmonary emphysema, then pneumonia and even tuberculosis, but his condition only got worse.
During Chinese New Year, Zhong Guangwei went home, but his coughing did not let up. A fellow villager who had some medical knowledge suspected that it may be pneumoconiosis, and urged him to get it diagnosed.
He went to the Datong Health Examination Centre but his request for a physical examination was rejected. The doctor said that because pneumoconiosis is an occupational disease, he would require proof of employer-employee relationship prior to diagnosing the condition.
This put Zhong Guangwei in a fluster: A peasant like him did not even think about signing a contract before he entered the mine. Clutching to a sliver of hope, he asked the mine to issue an acknowledgement but the latter denied knowing him, and also the fact that he once worked at the mine.
Zhong went to the Southern Suburbs District Labour Department, and many of his co-workers vouched for him. He fully expected to win, but three months later, the Labour Department decided there was no labour relationship between Zhong and the coal mine, because he did not know the boss.
“The mine owner never steps foot into the mine, no one knows him.” Zhong felt aggrieved, and took his case to court. The Labour Department decision was overturned and the court held that there was indeed a labour relationship between Zhong Guangwei and the Zhulinsi Coal Mine.
The coal mine appealed the judgment. But in November 2008, Zhong won the appeal hearing, and with the court judgment in hand, went for a physical examination. “I had no problem walking at that time, and I could carry fifteen to twenty kilograms in one hand. I thought that even though pneumoconiosis is incurable, it is enough if I can maintain my health as it is, and find a light job later to support my family.”
The physical examination results at the end of 2008 dealt a grave blow to Zhong Guangwei: second-stage silicosis (a type of pneumoconiosis), along with medium damage to lung function. Zhong’s face clouded over, he had absolutely no idea what to do. The doctor looked at him and said, “Your illness is incurable, you should apply for work-related injury – it’s already at a critical stage.”
In July 2009, an official work-related injury appraisal classified Zhong with a grade three disability. By then he had completely lost the ability to work, his weight had fallen from 130 pounds to 110 pounds, and he had difficulty catching his breath while walking. He coughed all the time.
Zhong was once optimistic that he could at least wash dishes at a restaurant if he stopped working at the coal mine. But when he walked into a restaurant that was recruiting staff, the boss took one look at him and said, “You say that pneumoconiosis is not infectious, but when customers see how hard you cough, they will all think that it’s tuberculosis. If I employ you, I have no doubt that my business will close down in a month.”
Zhong gritted his teeth and held on; although he could not make money, he could still save money. He no longer went to the hospital for his medication, but took over-the-counter painkillers to alleviate the excruciating pain.
Obstacles to compensation mounting up
Last August, Zhong applied for work-related injury compensation. Staff in the Southern Suburbs District Labour Department recognised him, and without reading his application, declared it inadmissible because the Zhulinsi Coal Mine had been closed down earlier in 2008, in line with local policy. “What to do?” Woken up by pain in the middle of the night, Zhong was filled with sadness. After worrying for a month, he borrowed money to hire a lawyer, and took Zhulinsi Coal Mine to court. He sought over 530,000 yuan in work-related injury compensation and medical expenses.
In January, the Southern Suburbs Court ordered the coal mine to pay Zhong 490,000 yuan in compensation. However, more than four months after the judgement, Zhong had still not received a single cent. He then applied for the enforcement of the verdict.
In July, he brought a court official to the Zhulinsi Coal Mine, panting as he went. In the desolate coal mine, Zhong coughed non-stop, but he saw light before his eyes: the official seized part of the facilities. “These facilities are worth quite a bit of money, the court said they could be auctioned off if the mine owner refuses to pay up. This way, I would be able to get my compensation.”
Something unexpected came up, again. Court investigations showed that the facilities in question may not actually belong to the mine; the owner had already mortgaged them to a third party. The court decided to investigate the exact ownership of these facilities, and ordered an executive hearing to resolve the question of asset ownership.
The family have fallen into dire straits. Their frequent borrowings, Zhong’s illness, and the hardship of seeking legal redress have all taken a heavy toll on them. Before he fell sick, Zhong was earning six to seven thousand yuan a month; after contracting pneumoconiosis, he could not find work, and had to go from place to place in search of legal redress. On top of that, the medical treatment depleted his savings and he borrowed heavily.
“We looked up every relative and friend to borrow money; it’s all recorded in the book. We already owe more than 70,000 yuan, and have no idea when we can repay any of it.” Zhong sighed repeatedly. At their lowest point, the entire family could not even scrape together a few dozen yuan.
His condition became ever more serious. One morning, early this year, Zhong Guangwei got up and walked two steps before he fell unconscious to the ground. “At that time, I was still aware that I had no strength left in my body. I only came to, after what seemed like a few minutes, but could have been a long while.” He knew his condition was getting worse, and since the fainting episode he has basically given up hope; although he kept this from his family.
This June, when his wife brought the children to stay with their father, she discovered that his health had deteriorated drastically - he weighed less than 50 kilograms, and would faint with the slightest exertion.
Forced to compromise
“I no longer expect him to work and make money! As long as we continue with our lives as they are now... we cannot lose him......The sooner we get the money, the sooner we can seek medical treatment.” Zhong’s wife took their three children along when they went about seeking legal redress. At the entrance of the complaint processing offices, in the various departments they went to, the Zhong family repeatedly kneeled down and asked for help whenever they saw individuals who looked like they were in charge.
The frequent visits to the court and government departments made their son, only now two years old, apprehensive and fearful. In the middle of the night, he would cry out in his sleep: No more court visits! I’m afraid!
In September, his older daughter was supposed to start middle-school, and the younger one should be attending elementary school. Zhong was so ill that he could only lie in bed, taking more painkillers when the pain became excruciating. They had been subsisting mainly on steamed buns, but even that was becoming difficult. Zhong felt that he could not hold out any longer; he could not bear to think of the time they have before the final act.
As winter approaches, Datong is especially chilly, and many families have stoked up their furnaces. Zhong has no money to buy coal, and the cold air aggravates his condition. Last Saturday, the season’s first snow fell. Six netizens from Beijing hurried to Datong, bringing quilts, coal and rice among other things to the Zhong family; they also left behind 6,000 yuan in hard cash. They further appealed to other well-meaning netizens to help out the Zhong family.
Some netizens wanted to pay for the girls’ schooling, but the children declined: “Papa is so sick, I could not think of studying at the moment. When Papa gets the money for medical treatment, I will go to school.”
Receiving hand outs simply added to the pressure Zhong felt, “This cannot drag on any further, it is hard to make money, and I also feel uneasy using the donated money.”
At the court hearing on 28 October, Zhong pondered hard and lowered his compensation demand to 350,000 yuan, exclaiming; “Every single cent that is being lowered, I have exchanged with my life.”
Agitated, and with cigarette smoke in the room, Zhong could not stop coughing. He got his wife to go outside for a pack of painkillers, and swallowed a bunch of them there and then.
The court proposed a compromise of 270,000 yuan, little more than half of the compensation amount awarded back in January.
Zhong came to a decision: He could not last much longer, nor could his family depend on handouts for their survival, the children should be properly schooled. As long as the mine owner was willing to pay the compensation immediately, he was willing to compromise.
His wife agreed: treatment for Zhong’s illness could not be put off any longer! As long as the mine owner was willing to pay up, they would go to Nanjing for medical treatment, “it is enough that he will be kept alive,” she said.
Half an hour later, Zhong and his wife acquiesced to the mediated terms, and signed the agreement papers. The judge tells them that the court will hand over the 270,000 yuan on 3 November.
It is 29 October. Early winter. The light filtered through the window panes, falling on the cement floor of the family home. Zhong’s wife took out 50 yuan from a bundled-up bag, and bought meat and eggs for her husband. Their daughter no longer weeps, and now laughs and plays with her little brother.
Reclining in bed, Zhong Guangwei looked at the calendar, and muttered to himself, “Five more days!”
Postscript: On the afternoon of 3 November, after waiting for more than six hours, Zhong Guangwei finally received a cheque for 270,000 yuan from the presiding judge at the Southern Suburbs District Court. “I gave up half my life to get this 270,000 yuan,” he said in a heavy, cough-laden voice.