Tue, Dec 18, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Builder waiting to suffocate as China celebrates opening

By Sue-Lin Wong  /  Reuters, SHENZHEN, China

For four years at the turn of the century, Wang Zhaohong worked on a demolition crew in Shenzhen, clearing the way for the once-tiny border village to become a bustling metropolis.

Now, emaciated and struggling for breath, the bedridden 50-year-old said that the work he did would end up killing him.

Without proper safety equipment, he and his colleagues from a remote county in China’s Hunan Province inhaled so much construction dust during Shenzhen’s development boom that they contracted silicosis, a lung-destroying condition.

Wang’s case is acute. He expects to suffocate by Chinese New Year.

This month, China will celebrate the 40th anniversary of its “reform and opening up,” the economic policy that transformed it into the world’s second-largest economy.

Even as hundreds of millions of people have left poverty, Wang and others like him are reminders of the heavy human toll of China’s development, and authorities have sought to censor information and suppress protests.

About 6 million Chinese either suffer from or have already died from pneumoconiosis, or dust-caused lung damage that includes silicosis, according to estimates by Love Save Pneumoconiosis, a Beijing non-governmental organization that advocates for workers with the condition.

Hundreds of migrant workers from three counties in Hunan province, including Wang, have been protesting for compensation from Shenzhen.

“We used to wear the same mask for 10 days before getting a new one,” Wang said in his village in poor, rural Sangzhi County. “At the time, our boss would say to us: ‘If you use a new mask every single day, how will I ever make any money?’”

The workers earned 5,000 to 6,000 yuan (US$725 to US$870 at the current exchange rate) each month, double or triple what other migrant workers were paid at the time.

Almost no one signed contracts, which has made it nearly impossible for them to seek adequate compensation.

The Shenzhen government has offered some workers payments dependent on the severity of their illness of up to 220,000 yuan, said Gu Fuxiang, one of the worker’s representatives.

However, he said it was not nearly enough.

Their prospects look grim in what has been a nearly decade-long fight. Security forces attacked them early last month during their most recent sit-in at Shenzhen City Hall, five workers who were there said.

“For both the local government here and the Shenzhen Government, maintaining stability is absolutely their first priority,” said Gu, who has less severe silicosis.

“We traded our lives for development,” he said. “The government doesn’t care if we’re sick, if we die.”

A Shenzhen Government spokesman referred questions to the police, social security, health and economic reform departments.

The health department hung up on a call seeking comment; the economic reform department declined to comment. The police and social security departments did not respond to multiple calls.

The health crisis is not unique to China; advocacy groups in the US struggled for decades to win compensation for workers dying of such “dust diseases.”

However, the pace of China’s building boom has created an unprecedented number of casualties in just 40 years.

No city in history has grown faster than Shenzhen, whose economic output surpassed that of next-door neighbor Hong Kong for the first time last year.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top