More than two years after a group of workers filed a ground-breaking criminal lawsuit against their former employer for failing to protect their health, the Chancheng police department in Foshan have initiated a criminal investigation into a “major workplace safety incident” at Haoxin Hardware Jewellery Co. Ltd.
Several hundred workers at Haoxin had contracted the deadly lung disease pneumoconiosis whilst employed at the company’s dust filed Foshan workshop in the 2000s. The workers were offered only minimal compensation, which many refused. When the company closed the Foshan factory in 2010, the dismissed workers switched tactics and decided to sue the boss for failing to meet his legal responsibilities to protect employees against the dangers of dust inhalation.
The decision of the police to investigate, at long last, was welcomed by the workers’ lawyer Liu Zhengqing:
Although the police started its criminal investigation two years after we filed the case, it is still an encouraging sign. Now (employers) can no longer settle occupational disease cases by just paying money, they will be held legally accountable as well.
If the case does come to court and the head of Haoxin is found guilty, he could face up to seven years in prison, according to China’s Criminal Law.
In 2011, CLB made a short film documenting the workers’ fight for justice and what prompted their decision to file a criminal lawsuit.
A group of Chinese factory workers, all suffering from the deadly lung disease pneumoconiosis, are sacked by their boss with no compensation. They appeal to the government for help but are rebuffed. In the end they hire a layer to get their jobs back and also file a criminal lawsuit against their former boss for endangering their health and livelihood. It will be the first lawsuit of its kind in China.
The Haoxin case also illustrates just how many workers with pneumoconiosis are not included in the official government occupational disease statistics. According to Foshan municipal health authority statistics, only 20 new pneumoconiosis cases were registered in 2009, but at Haoxin alone, 171 workers had already been diagnosed with the disease.
“It is obvious that the company is hiding occupational disease cases from the government,” Liu Zhengqing told a reporter in 2011.
The official figures put the number of workers with pneumoconiosis in the whole China at around 600,000, but as CLB showed in our latest research report Time to Pay the Bill: China’s obligation to the victims of pneumoconiosis, the actual number could be ten times higher.