INTERNATIONAL WORKERS' MEMORIAL DAY 2009
Updates on Gold Peak, Maersk and Asbestos campaigning
Overview of OSH in China
Memorial Day is not officially recognised in Hong Kong, Macau or China. In mainland China, health and safety on the ground remains a matter of serous concern for workers and the authorities alike.
Workplace injuries in manufacturing are everyday occurrences as are OSH related illness such as pneumoconiosis and silicosis. Coal mining is of particular concern - while the authorities state the number of deaths is falling, accidents remain common and are often covered up by the mine owners and/or local authorities. Endemic corruption compounds the problems. Cases of miners being forced underground to continue working in unsafe conditions continue to be reported as do cases where the owners fail to report accidents in a timely manner leading to additional loss of life of workers.
For example in August 2008 nine miners were trapped in an illegal coal mine in Guye district, Tangshan, Hebei Province. Police were only notified two days later that the workers were trapped. Police said the nine miners were hired by a businessman, who allegedly had an underground passage dug beneath his coal-retailing business, to enable illegal coal extraction from a neighbouring state owned coal mine. It was later discovered that in fact thirteen workers were trapped. The initial explosion trapped nine illegal miners. However, the mine owner then organized four people to enter the mine for rescue operation, but they also went missing.
Situation "grim" : 200 registered deaths from OSH disease a year in Guangdong alone
Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong and Macao special administrative regions, has one of the highest rates of occupational disease, with an average of 200 deaths a year. Around 280,000 employees have at one time come into contact with poisonous dust and another 470,000 with harmful chemical products. Nationwide official sources give figures of some 5000,000 cases of penuemocosois but the real figures are believed to be much much higher as many workers are unaware of the risk of the diseases and most workers are never informed of potential hazards at their workplace.
In February 2009 one official survey estimated that more than a third of the workers in Foshan city, a prosperous manufacturing city in the middle of the Perl River Delta were at a high risk of contracting an occupational disease. More than 1 million of the 3 million employed by 50,604 industrial companies in the industrial city regularly face various hazards, figures showed and according to the Foshan bureau of health, the situation would turn "grim" in Foshan in the coming years and predicted that levels of occupational disease would reach their peak in the country over the next decade.
The ACFTU, like other state bodies in China has some responsibility for OSH management. The Regulations for the Trade Union Inspections on Occupational Health and Safety allow for extensive inspections and monitoring of factories and other workplaces by ACFTU officials and yet the ACFTU is rarely seen engaging in the issue of OSH, let alone supporting workers claims for compensation.
Gold Peak Subisidary JetPower: Cadmium poisoned workers seek compensation package
IHLO is currently working on several OSH related cases including the cadmium poisoned battery workers working at the Hong Kong based company Gold Peak. Gold Peak workers have been attempting to claim adequate compensation, redundancy benefits and other payments for many years now in the face of extreme intransigence by Gold Peak. In 2007 IHLO nominated Gold Peak for the Public Eye People's Awards as one of the world’s most callous employers.
Now it has emerged that in addition to workers at the Hong Kong and China based Gold Peak factories being affected by excessive cadmium levels and cadmium poisoning, new cases at another GP subsidiary have been found along with relocated related issues. Since September 2008 onwards, machines and managers were relocated from the Gold Peak Shenzhen JetPower factory reducing the size of the factory from two buildings to just three floors while the number of workers was cut from 1000 to about 500. It was rumoured that the plant was to move to Huizhou but with no clarification offered and attempts at discussions rejected workers went on strike from the 19 -25 February.
The strike successfully forced a representative from GP to meet with the workers on its first day when she announced that JetPower would indeed relocate to Huizhou and close its Shenzhen operations. A compensation package would be given to the workers by 13 February at the latest. However on 23 February, Gold Peak held another meeting with the workers and announced instead that the company was to remain in Shenzhen and would fulfil its contractual obligations. However no compensation proposal was provided until the following day the company finally announced a compensation package and reassured workers that “all [the relocation] will be done in accordance with the laws”. However despite continued requests no clear package has been agreed.
Factory ACFTU chair represents management
In another twisted irony when workers initially met with the labour bureau and upper management representative’s n 18 February, they were faced with the local Chinese General Manager of the plant representing management – at the same time however he was also the factory’s ACFTU branch chair. Holding both titles however did not stop him from claiming that he knew ‘nothing’ about the company’s plans. The chair/manager is due for retirement soon and workers believe that the 5,000 Yuan earmarked as union help for sick workers will be scrapped once he is retired. [The ‘union’ has around 400 members both management and rank and file workers].
Refusal to pay medical costs
While the situation is grim for several hundred of these workers who will be laid off, the situation will be immeasurably worse for those workers who have contracted cadmium poisoning or have excessive levels in their blood stream. The compensation package for hem has not yet been announced and the company remains reluctant to hold genuine talks with the affected workers.
During the strike, as a grim portent of the possible problems to come, a worker who has already been diagnosed with excessive cadmium level and with 18 years of service at JetPower fainted. The worker was admitted into hospital but JetPower were reluctant to pay for the medical fee. After lengthy negotiations JetPower agreed to pay HK1, 500 out of the total 2,012 Yuan. The workers decided to leave hospital to reduce further medical fees and then found that JetPower had instead taken the money they paid out of a special union fund for sick employees reducing her allowance.
Workers are now calling for
1. Immediate negotiations with all workers who have excessive cadmium levels on the workers’ compensation proposal;
2. Announce a proposal for the medical treatment and follow-up arrangements for Workers with excessive cadmium levels and cadmium poisoning.
Beginning from the middle of April, JetPower workers with excessive cadmium levels have started a new round of action taking turns to stop delivery of JetPower products. A solidarity demonstration took place in Hong Kong on 22 April and further action continues.
For the JetPower strike summary : The six-day strike at Shenzhen JetPower Batteries Ltd. (19 -24 Feb 2009)*
For the Open Letter by Hong Kong based unions and groups to Gold Peak on this case see: Letter to Gold Peak Industrial Holding Ltd regarding JetPower April 2009
For more information on the Gold peak campaign see IHLO website and Globalisation monitor
Maersk Dongguan: A sorry story of repression, deceit and dismissal
Maersk Dongguan was in the news in 2008 over reports of a workers protest after beatings by security guards and other incidents relating to poor working conditions. Reports then came out of serious problems with the Maersk Dongguan plant’s factory rule book. Factory rule books in China have long had an ambiguous relationship to domestic labour law and even now with the new labour contract law; it is often unclear as to whether factory rules can ‘trump’ the law even if they have not been negotiated by or with the workers.
In this case the rules include extensive penalties for infractions of ‘discipline’ such as being late etc but perhaps most worrying they also expressly forbid workers from going on strike.
The right to strike was removed form the Chinese constitution but has never been expressly forbidden by law and currently its legality remains unclear. Increasingly however academics and some officials are calling for it to be legalised and clarified given that strikes occur on an everyday basis throughout China.
See for example IHLO “Industrial Strikes should be allowed to help build Harmonious Labour Relations”
At Maersk however dozens of employees were sacked after a strike in May 2008. As the workers – now claiming reinstatement and compensation - write in letters to the authorities and to Maersk management the dismissals are themselves illegal:
“We were workers at the Maersk Container Industry Dongguan Ltd. We were unlawfully dismissed by the management on 12 and 16 May 2008 respectively for supposedly “illegal‟ strikes. The company’s action has neither legal ground nor any justifiable reasons. We asked for negotiation with the management but were rejected. We are now writing to you to demand that you meet with us. Dismissing workers for striking is unlawful China has no law whatsoever that prohibits strikes. Therefore dismissing workers on the grounds of “illegal‟ strikes are wrong”.
In January 2009 Maersk issued a statement in response to public reports about poor working conditions, low safety levels, security issues and the factory rule book. In the statement Maersk attempted to refute all allegations and instead blame workers. For example maersk blamed the workers for the earlier 2008 protest by claiming that“many employees are former rural workers who are not used to working in a factory where many people eat together in a canteen. One of the episodes that resulted in a strike was in fact caused by a lack of proper queue behaviour.”
Workers at the plant have also been exposed to excessive noise levels. The January Maersk statement denies that there has been any “permanent hearing damage”. This is misleading as there appears to be scores of cases where the hearing of workers has been damaged and are awaiting final diagnosis.
In January 2009 the A.P. Moller - Maersk Group reportedly decided to adopt the UN ”Global Compact” charter comprising ten principles for good business ethics in the areas of human rights, labour rights, environment and anti-corruption. According to Maersk, “Adopting these principles reinforces the Group’s wish to continue and increase its reporting on corporate social responsibility”. Their actions however reveal the wide gap between reality and practice and the almost impossible task of ensuring Global Compact members actually follow their own alleged principles.
A series of articles have been written by Danish reports on the case and include extensive comments by IHLO who have been supporting the affected workers.
Maersk Dongguan: Letter from sacked worker
Maersk Dongguan: A sorry story of repression, deceit and dismissal : Open letter from workers
Original Articles in Danish
Article: Global Unions Message to Maersk
The ITUC affiliate HKCTU is one o f the main co-organisers of the Asian Asbestos Conference which takes place in Hong Kong from 26 – 28 April.TheAsian Asbestos Conference 2009 focuses on strengthening the Grassroots Asbestos Movement in Asia. AT a time when the majority of countries in the north have either banned asbestos or severely limited its use, Asia remains the largest market for asbestos consumption.
Rather than taking steps to ban asbestos, which has killed and diseased thousands of workers and others globally, instead Asia, along with other developing countries has been selectively targeted as an emerging market by the asbestos manufacturers and exporters. Asia has also emerged as one of the largest market for the asbestos consumption with China and India as two biggest consumers.
Specific aims of the AAC 2009 include:
* in China: to reach out to grass-roots’ groups and campaigners, to give these individuals the opportunity to communicate their experiences on asbestos to a wider audience, to improve links amongst groups so that future actions can be coordinated.
* in Asia: to build on the work of the GAC 2004 and AAC 2006 to raise awareness of asbestos issues within civil society; to identify individuals working on asbestos or related issues; to identify effective strategies for dealing with national asbestos problems; to disseminate information which can be used to improve national asbestos health and safety legislation; to officially launch the Ban Asbestos Network of Asia.
* globally: to hasten the day when a worldwide ban on asbestos protects future generations from the horrors of death by asbestos poisoning.
More details: www.anroav.org/aac
IHLO also supports the work of the Hong Kong Association for the Rights of Industrial Accident Victims (ARIAV). Throughout the year, ARIAV works fro the recognition of ICD in Hong Kong and for the rights of victims in Hong Kong.
Statistics shown that some 60,000 of occupational accidents happen each year in Hong Kong, with more than 200 related fatalities. Employers put profitability as a priority and workers' safety seldom comes into their agenda. We are outraged that in many cases, law-breaking employers can easily settle the loss of their workers lives with a small amount of compensation and walk away from their legal responsibility with no other penalty.
Is a worker's life worth only a few thousand US dollars? What about a worker's dignity? Social justice? Are these empty slogans for children?
Facing permanent physical damage and an unknown future, we are angry! For our sisters and brothers who lost their lives in industrial accidents and for their shattered families, we must voice out our anger! Our society does not respect the contribution of OSH victims' and mistreats them in many ways. When victims claim compensation for their injuries, employers and insurance companies question them as if they were the criminals in a police investigation and an attempt to claim their well-deserved compensation often turns out to be like fighting a war. Widows and children are often described as greedy and unreasonable claimants when they try to get the funeral fees for their husbands and fathers.
Workers and their families contribute their health, family life and in some unfortunate cases, their lives to Hong Kong. Is this the payback? Can our society witness such an injustice and remain unmoved?
We, as victims and family members left behind, hope to push forward our demands through this statement, and a few words can cover our demands:
These are “Respect, Protection & Safety” and “Proper Respect and recognition of victims of occupational accidents/diseases”.
Our demands in detail:
Respect: The Hong Kong SAR Government should:
* Recognize International Memorial Day.
* Establish a monument for victims of occupational accidents & diseases in an open and popular public area.
* Safeguard the rights of victims and their equal opportunities at different social levels.
Protection: The Hong Kong SAR Government should:
* Establish a Central Employees’ Compensation System so that the rights of work victims and their families can be duly protected.
* Set up a tribunal specifically for handling work-related injuries and occupational diseases, to reduce the workload and time required for a worker to go through the legal process.
* Extend the scale of compensation for work-related diseases.
* Re-examine the current compensation amounts and terms, the categories of work-related injuries and diseases covered, in order to develop a fairer compensation scheme for victims and their families.
* Provide free legal aid to victims and their families, regardless their financial means.
* Assist the recovery of injured workers with a better and more coherent compensation scheme with adequate rehabilitation treatment & facilities.
* Secure the rights of re-employment for injured workers.
* Ensure more rigorous prosecution and punishment of law-breaking employers.
Safety: The Hong Kong SAR Government should:
* Increase the number of workplace inspection and introduce programmes for employees to participate in enhancing work safety, to ensure the relevant regulations are implemented.
* Give clear and consistent penalties to employers who violate work safety rules and regulations.
* Keep the public better informed by regularly releasing the statistics of work-related injuries and deaths and a list of law-breaking employers.
* Include occupational health and safety in the syllabus of secondary school education.
* Protect all employees by drafting more adequate and updated OSH laws and ensuring their implementation.
ICEM Campaigns for ILO Convention 176
The ICEM is using the occasion of April 28, the International Commemoration Day for Dead and Injured Workers, to announce the renewal of its campaign for the formal ratification of International Labor Organization ILO Convention 176 on Health and Safety in Mines. The ICEM has been lobbying the (...)
The participation of China was especially important and included Xu Enyi, Vice Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese Energy and Chemical Workers’ Union, who committed to working toward ratification.
ITUC/GUF Hong Kong Liaison Office www.ihlo.org