Coal miners suffering from black lung disease fight for compensation

By Yuen Yeuk-laam Source:Global Times Published: 2015-2-15 19:33:01

A black lung patient sits in a hospital in Leiyang, Hunan Province in 2013. Photo: CFP

 "If I walk too fast I can't breathe. My illness has forced me to quit my job, because when I breathe in dust, I choke and my lungs get uncomfortable," said Wang Baosheng, 51.

Wang, a native of Leping, in Jiangxi Province, has been a coal worker for more than 10 years. Five years ago he was diagnosed with pneumoconiosis, commonly known as black lung disease. He and other 35 workers from his mine have sought compensation from their employer since 2011, but have yet to receive their full compensation.

Black lung disease is an incurable occupational disease. According to the National Health and Family Planning Commission, the disease is the most common occupational disease in China. At the end of 2013, China had 750,000 black lung sufferers, 60 percent of whom had worked in coal mines. The disease is caused primarily by the inhalation of dust and other particulate matters.

But Love Save Pneumoconiosis (LSP), a non-governmental foundation dedicated to raising awareness of the disease and providing help for sufferers, estimates the actual number of black lung sufferers in China at 6 million.

Symptoms of the disease include coughing, chest pain, shortness of breath and bronchitis. Patients can lose their ability to walk because of breathing difficulties, with extreme cases leading to death.

Over the past few years, many coal workers have sought compensation from mining companies. Few have succeeded because of the difficulty of proving their disease was the result of their working environment.

According to statistics collected by LSP, only 19 percent of the 6 million coal workers suffering from pneumoconiosis had received compensation as the result of legal proceedings as of the end of 2014.

Coal workers with black lung has become the most crucial health problem in China in the early 21st century, after the AIDS problem in the 1990s, Wang keqin, a journalist and founder of the LSP, told the Worker's Daily.

Some patients, repeatedly denied compensation but still short of money, have been forced to return to the mine to work.

Falling into a pit

Wang and his fellow workers have spent nearly two years trying to bring their case to court.

In 2012, their company, Zhaojiashan coal mine, told them that business had been poor and the company could not afford the entire amount they were owed - 6 million yuan ($959,400). The company instead suggested an initial payment of 30 percent of the entire compensation.

But when the workers went to collect their money, they were asked to sign a legal document stating that they would give up the other 70 percent of the compensation, Wang said.

"Because many of us cannot read, we signed anyway. Some people only collected 30,000 yuan that day," Wang told the Global Times.

The workers felt they had been cheated, and have fought for additional compensation since. But the local courts have repeatedly declined to hear their case because of the agreement they signed. With the help of lawyers, a court finally heard the case earlier this month, ruling that the agreements should be cancelled.

But by that point one of the workers had already passed away due to his illness, while three others are in the hospital and can only breathe with artificial assistance, Wang Fei, head of LSP's law department and lawyer in the case, told the Global Times, adding cases of this sort are not rare in China.

A black fate

Wang Fei has been working as a law consultant for black lung sufferers for three years. He said coal miners in China rarely win compensation because less than 5 percent have signed a contract with their companies, giving the employers an excuse to slip out of legal consequences.

Also, many miners have worked for more than one company, making it difficult to trace which company workers should sue.

"High mobility and loose legal management are the two main challenges that coal workers face," Wang Fei said.

Black lung workers often face another problem with the current compensation system.

"Employees must obtain a legal document from their employers proving that their illness was the result of their workplace. This is the most challenging part because no employers are willing to issue the document," Wang Fei said.

Bringing suit is no guarantee of compensation. Nineteen pneumoconiosis patients in Anhua, Hunan Province, won a court case after five years of appeal, and the court ruled in 2013 that they deserved a total of 3.8 million yuan as compensation, reported.

However, none of them has received as much as they expected because the mining company claimed its bank accounts were empty. One of the workers was forced to go back to the mine to take care of family.

"Many coal workers in China are in their 40s. People this age are usually carrying a heavy family burden. Since they know that their illness cannot be cured, some of them have no choice but to return to the mine to work, as a sacrifice," Wang Fei said.

Government work

Currently, some cities such as Shuifu, Yunnan Province and Leshan, Sichuan Province have included black lung patients in their medical insurance scheme, providing medical and living subsidies to sufferers.

China's Pneumoconiosis Prevention Act, issued in 1987, rules that employees in professions subject to high dust exposure must take a health check before they are hired, and another one when they quit.

National regulations also require employers to arrange positions with less dust exposure for workers diagnosed with black lung.

Wang Fei said that the number of black lung patients would be reduced if all coal mines abided by relevant national laws and regulations.

Leping's bureau for letters and calls has responded to Wang Baosheng's case, saying that coal workers who have black lung disease are provided with free medical treatment in local hospitals, while 29 coal workers' families are receiving public insurance payments from the government, People's Daily reported.

As well as the efforts made by organizations, the Chinese government is also working on saving those black lung patients.

The China Coal Miner Pneumoconiosis Prevention and Treatment Foundation, funded by the government in 2004, had treated 125,000 black lung miners as of the end of 2014, according to China National Radio.
Newspaper headline: Not breathing easy

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