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Yunnan villages devastated by the deaths of stricken migrant workers

Tuesday 14 April 2009, by Robert Paris

Yunnan villages devastated by the deaths of stricken migrant workers

At least 12 migrant workers have died, and dozens more from the same Yunnan township are severely incapacitated after contracting a debilitating lung disease, whilst working at a stone crushing factory in Anhui.

From 2004 onwards, several hundred men from the three remote villages of Xiangjiaba township made the long journey to work at stone factory Guangou village, Anhui. They earned over 2,000 yuan a month for their arduous labour, and could send about 20,000 yuan back to their families each year.

However, in 2006, some of the stone workers began to develop chest pains, experienced severe bouts of coughing and had difficulty breathing. Their health gradually deteriorated, they lost weight and eventually withered away. Villagers describe those still suffering from the disease as the “living dead” (活死人).

The Kunming-based Chuncheng Evening News (春城晚报) interviewed one victim, 45- year-old Wang Changgui, who in his prime could easily carry loads of over 100 kilograms. Shrunken and listless, Wang now appeared a shadow of his former self. As his wife told the newspaper: “This pillar of strength has become the living dead. How are supposed to carry on?”

Wang started work in the stone factory in March 2007. Although he was earning big money by the standards of the village, conditions were so bad that he quit after two months of continuous labour. He described working in dense clouds of rock dust, which he and his fellow workers inhaled on a daily basis.

Although only one of the victims has been formally diagnosed (after a visit to an occupational disease hospital in Beijing) with pneumoconiosis, the incurable and crippling disease that commonly affects miners and quarry workers is the most likely cause of the workers’ illness. If the stone workers were breaking up sandstone with high silica content, moreover, they may well be suffering from silicosis, a variant of pneumoconiosis.

In order to treat the disease, many villagers have run up huge debts. The medical bills for one victim, 49-year-old Liu Shuxiang, come to 1,800 yuan a month. The family has sold just about everything in the house; they are close to destitution and have to rely on the money their son, also a migrant worker, sends home.

Liu told the Chuncheng Evening News; “We went such a long way to work in Anhui, simply to make more money for our families. At that time, it was what all of us migrant workers were thinking of. None of us knew that we would contract such a terrible illness.”

The township government is now taking some action to provide relief for the victims through the social welfare system and has started a public education campaign to make villagers more aware of the dangers of working outside the local area. However, neither the workers themselves nor the local government have sought compensation directly from the Anhui factory. Most of the workers did not have employment contracts and felt the factory was too far away and that too much time had passed for them to hope for any compensation.

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