In 1965, Ding Suozhu answered the Chinese government’s call to work in the country’s under-developed north-western provinces. For over 30 years, he served at Unit 5702, a People’s Liberation Army enterprise in Xianyang, Shaanxi, as an engineer involved in research and production of fibreglass-plastic reinforced composite materials for the aerospace industry.
The job entailed exposure to glass fibre and other toxic and hazardous materials, and in 1972, Ding began to show signs of pulmonary dysfunction. He should have been transferred to a safer workplace within the plant but he continued working and inhaling fibre-glass dust for another 16 years before undergoing further testing in the late 1990s, which showed his condition had worsened.
Ding asked for early retirement but was refused. He took sick leave regardless but this only led to Unit 5702 terminating his employment contract. Not long afterwards, he was finally diagnosed with early stage pneumoconiosis but, because he was no longer formally employed, he was unable to get proper medical treatment or the compensation he was entitled to under Chinese law or even claim his pension.
In July 2011, Ding talked to China Labour Bulletin Director Han Dongfang about the stonewalling tactics of his employer and his long campaign of litigation, publicity and protest, which has ultimately proved fruitless and left him having to scratch out a living as a customer guide at a local shopping centre.
Early signs of illness
Ding told Han that he first felt unwell back in 1969. “I was working with fibre-reinforced plastic composite materials, a mixture of resins and fibres stuck together. There was also exposure to other materials such as polyurethane and dangerous metals.”
He got a full medical check-up in 1972 but was misdiagnosed with tuberculosis. Then:
I spent more than a year in hospital... There was no confirmed diagnosis, they just said that this was not tuberculosis, and they suspected it was an occupational illness, and I was referred to the occupational illness hospital. I went to Shaanxi Provincial Health Department, and then I was sent first to the municipal and then the provincial Health and Quarantine Station.
Ding then had further testing after complaining of a fever, cough, and bodily weakness. This time the X-rays did show evidence of occupational illness, “but it was not noticed at the time.” He was discharged from the Shaanxi hospital without a diagnosis and told to have regular check-ups in future.
Ding continued working at Unit 5702, gaining several promotions but always in daily contact with fibreglass dust: “I was a worker originally, and I gradually I rose to assistant engineer, and finally senior engineer, but I was always working in the front line.”
In 1998, he had more tests done at Xi’an Central Hospital occupational illness department, and was told that his pulmonary dysfunction had become “moderate,” with anaemic hypoxia (deficiency of oxygen in the blood), but his condition was still not severe enough to justify a pneumoconiosis diagnosis. This was when Ding, then aged 50, made his request for early retirement. The grassroots-level management of the plant signed off the paperwork, but procedures were never initiated. It turned out that higher-level management had refused to acknowledge that Ding had an occupational illness. His retirement application was effectively binned. In response, Ding announced that he was taking sick leave. Unit 5702 then terminated his employment contract on the grounds of absenteeism.
A few months after he was terminated, Ding finally got his official diagnosis of occupational illness, early stage pneumoconiosis, which was endorsed by the Xianyang committee for the evaluation of occupational illness. The leaders at Unit 5702 however were unmoved.
It was around this time that Ding embarked on his long campaign to get compensation, medical treatment and his job back. He first filed the case with a local labour arbitration committee. It ruled that his leave of absence from work was a “personal act” and amounted to unauthorised sick leave. The committee ignored Ding’s illness and dismissed the case.
Ding’s response was to file a lawsuit demanding recognition of his illness and the restoration of his employment contract. Court officials arranged for Ding to see a doctor, who turned out to be the doctor at Unit 5702. The examination took place at the Xianyang Health and Quarantine Station. Despite Ding’s medical history of mild pulmonary dysfunction, the diagnosis said there was no sign of pneumoconiosis and that he had no sickness:
On the top of the documentation submitted by Unit 5702, it said that, since I was a senior engineer, and not involved in front-line work, there could not be any occupational illness. This was endorsed by the court.
Needless to say, Ding lost the case. Later, he went back to the health and quarantine station and accused doctors there of submitting to pressure from the court and deliberately ignoring evidence of occupational illness. According to Ding, the wife of the judge worked at Unit 5702.
Ding eventually got a valid diagnosis from the Xianyang committee for the evaluation of occupational illness. The head of that committee had been the doctor at Unit 5702 in early 1970s. He said, ‘I know your case quite well,’ and wrote a referral letter allowing Ding to get a full set of tests at the provincial people’s hospital. After a hospital stay of one month, Ding got his diagnosis: mild interstitial pulmonary fibrosis. This was the basis on which the committee made their decision to provide certification of occupational illness.
Now Ding had all the evidence he needed, he returned to the courts. In addition to the restoration of his employment contract, Ding wanted to get the unit to arrange medical care and reimburse his treatment expenses. After a retrial due to problems with case-filing procedures, the court again ruled that his sick leave was actually absenteeism, and that he was not actually sick. The certificate of occupational illness was disregarded. Ding appealed this decision at the Xianyang Intermediate People’s Court, and was again rebuffed. With this failure, and suspecting that his case was being blocked at a high level, Ding abandoned this round of litigation.
Blocked at every turn
Ding then had his health checked regularly at his own expense at Xianyang Health and Quarantine Station. Both the Health and Quarantine Station and the Xianyang Public Health Bureau kept Unit 5702 briefed on Ding’s health condition but the management there remained obdurate:
I lodged protests with the public prosecutor in 2002 and 2003, demanding medical treatment and the public prosecutor filed a complaint with the Xianyang Intermediate People’s Court. But there was no hearing, so nothing was settled.
In the mid-2000s, the Health and Quarantine Station became reluctant to continue seeing him, even though he was meeting all the costs himself. Ding believes this was because his condition needed to be reclassified, which could have led to a diagnosis that triggered compensation claims. Ding turned to the provincial Health Department, which offered him joint treatment by local doctors and their own higher-level doctors. But Ding has been waiting for this to materialize since 2006 and he is now trying to sue the provincial Health Department in an administrative suit for failure to perform its duties.
Throughout his legal campaign, however, Ding has found it difficult to find lawyers willing to take his case on because of the links between Unit 5702 and local court officials. The one lawyer who did take his case on only did so because he did not immediately appreciate the situation. But Ding, who has already incurred expenses of 8,000 yuan over the years of legal battles, remains philosophical about his lack of progress.
That’s the way it goes. This is normal in China, judicial corruption... The legal system is chaotic... One appellate judge demanded money. What the f… I let rip at him. But he got away with it, no penalties... It is very difficult to get legal enforcement. Somebody in the unit management and within the legal system is blocking me.
Ding has now turned 60, the official retirement age in China, and has discovered that his inability to get his occupational illness recognised, treated and compensated is not his only problem. Because he has not officially retired, Ding cannot access his state pension, medical insurance, housing provident fund and other economic entitlements.
They must at least process my retirement documentation. I am in the social security system, I have the proof of all that, I’ve paid in for 30 years.
When Unit 5702 terminated his employment contract, it failed to complete the necessary social security forms, and when Ding went to the Social Security Bureau to follow the matter up he was told that people within the unit were still refusing to co-operate.
Without access to proper medical care, Ding’s illness was gradually getting worse. However he could only afford cheap Chinese medicine to ameliorate his condition. At the time of the interview, he was working at a local shopping centre earning just enough to get by.
Han Dongfang's interview with Ding Suozhu was first broadcast in five episodes in July 2011.