The Long March: Survey and Case Studies of Work Injuries

Thursday, February 15, 2007

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As the title “the world’s manufacturing plant” (世界工厂) suggests, China is the largest producer and processor in the world today. It manufactures 75% of the toys, over 50% of the shoes, and 60% of the LCD (liquid crystal display) panel in the global market. By the end of 2006, Guangdong Province had a total number of 841,000 registered enterprises, the greatest number in China, which included 551,000 private enterprises.1 Dongguan City alone (a manufacturing center located in the Pearl River Delta region, Guangdong Province) has over 15,000 firms manufacturing everything from textiles to furniture to high-tech products such as finger print identifier. Most of these products are made by migrant workers, who come from the inner and rural parts of China to work in factories in cities temporarily. According to the Chinese official statistics, China’s migrant population has reached 150 million in 2005, which constitutes 11.5% of the total population. Most migrants are 15-39 years olds, with 75.3% of all female workers and 69.2% of all male workers in the age group (National Bureau of Statistics, 2005). About half of all migrant workers are women.

In China’s unprecedented economic boom in the past two decades, migrant workers contributed more than 20% of the GDP growth. Yet most of them were not awarded commensurate benefits, and for the limited financial gains they did receive, they paid a very high price. The Ministry of Labor and Social Security of China revealed that the number of deaths caused by industrial accidents had increased from 100,000 in 2000 to 136,000 in 2004.2 Most of them are found in private enterprises (founded by local or foreign capital), township and village enterprises. Among the three high-risk industries (mining, construction and occupations exposed to dangerous chemicals), migrant workers constitute over 80% of the total injury and death number.3 About 5000 Chinese mine workers die of industrial accidents every year. That number is roughly 4/5 of the world’s total, while China only produces 1/3 of the world’s coal output.
In the Peal River Delta region (where manufacturing cities like Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dongguan, Zhongshan and Zhuhai are located), about 40,000 fingers are severed due to industrial accidents a year. However, the work injury complaint filing, deciding and enforcing process takes up to 1,070 days on average, which is an unaffordable high price for most migrant workers who usually have no source of income during the long waiting period.4 Due to the complexity and long process of applying for and receiving legal compensation, most workers choose to reach a private settlement with the employer, which results in significantly lower amount of actual compensation. The rate and seriousness of work injuries and the various difficulties associated with the compensation application process have become one of the greatest plagues migrant workers are facing today.

Aware of the fact that little systematic documentation and research have been done on work injury-related matters, China Labor Watch conducted a large survey study in the Pearl River Delta region and issued a report in September 2005. In that report, “Crushed: A Survey of Work Injuries and Treatment in the Pearl River Delta,” the data was taken in interviews with 177 workers in fourteen hospitals in the Dongguan and Shenzhen metropolitan areas. It provided some initial probing into the correlation between fatigue and the occurrence of work injuries.
This report, “The Long March: Survey and Case Studies of Work Injuries in the Pearl River Delta Region,” is an extended research project following the 2005 one. It has two key components. The first part is a similar survey study based on interviews with 260 injured workers from the Shenzhen metropolitan area between May and November 2006. The purpose of this part is to identify some common characteristics shared by these work injury cases and injury victims. The second part is case studies that document and analyze the procedures to claim and receive work injury compensation based on actual cases that China Labor Watch’s field staff was involved with directly or provided legal assistance through collaboration with lawyers. The purpose of this part is to study a few typical work injury cases under a microscope in order to unearth common institutional and practical barriers migrant workers encounter in their complaint filing journey and to discuss possible and effective measures to address them. The length and difficulty of that process has given this report its title.