Every year close to 4000 coal miners in China die in mining related accidents.
But this figure doesn’t include those who are facing a longer, slower death.
The poor health and safety conditions in many Chinese mines results in thousands of miners getting work-related illnesses each year, some fatal.
Up against powerful mine owners, and lacking access information about avenues of redress, many miners choose to stay silent.
But Elise Potaka reports on one case which could turn things around.
Liao Su Qing rakes freshly harvested rice across a large bamboo mat. The rice grains must be turned regularly to dry in the sun.
Her husband, 59 year old Xiao Huazhong, can only watch on.
Diagnosed with third stage pneumoconiosis, or “black lung” disease, he is now unable to do any kind of physical work.
Even walking five minutes from the local store to his home can leave him struggling for breath.
“I have no been able to work for the last five years. I’ve spent all my life savings as there was nothing I could do to earn money.”
In 1995, Xiao Huazhong began work in a small coal mine not far from his village in Sichuan Province.
At the time he says he didn’t think about his health.
The money was fair – around 180 US dollars per month - and the illiterate father of two wanted to try and get ahead.
Then in winter 2002, he began to feel sick. He felt out of breath, and had difficulty walking. He began to get headaches.
His wife Liao Su Qing says they had to travel long distances and borrow money from friends and relatives to pay for the medical checkups.
And the financial burden continues. Liao pulls out a box full of pills and medication.
They rely on a friend to get them wholesale, as they can’t afford the prices charged by the hospital.
But still each month’s medicine costs them up to 100 US Dollars.
This is almost the average monthly wage of a small town farmer in China, and unable to work, Xiao is getting further into debt.
He is not alone.
In China more than 600 000 workers like Xiao Huazhong are suffering from black lung disease, a result of inhaling toxic dust.
Up to 10,000 new cases are found every year.
Although there are laws and regulations which are meant to protect coal miners from exposure to dust and other hazards, close connections between local government and mine owners means local authorities will turn a blind eye.
Geoff Crothall works with Hong Kong based labour rights NGO, the China Labour Bulletin.
“Very often the local mine owners and the local government officials are the same person. And even if there’s not a direct connection it’s in everybody’s interest to boost economic production and try and just ignore safety laws, because safety laws are going to hamper core production.”
This was the case with Xiao Huazhong. His mining boss is a member of the local people’s congress or parliament.
His wife, Liao Su Qing, says when they called to ask for compensation he ignored them.
“I called him on the phone to have a private chat. He asked me ‘what does this have to do with me’ and said there’s nothing to talk about. We haven’t been able to make contact with him since.”
Now Xiao Huazhong is taking on his former boos in a landmark legal case.
With the help of the Chinese Labour Bulletin he is demanding compensation for personal injury under China’s civil law totalling more than 10 thousand US dollars.
The case has just been accepted by the local court after more than a year of hard campaigning.
Initially, the court refused to accept his case. Xiao and his supporters believe the position and influence of his former boss was the reason why.
But now that the case is before the court Geoff Crothall from the China Labour Bulletin says they have a good chance of winning.
“In the last twelve months, we’ve taken on about 600 cases and of those cases that have been completed, the worker litigant has been successful 95 percent of the time.”
However he says the involvement of a local government official could complicate the case.
But Xiao Huazhong and his family are ready for a fight.
Xiao says he knows many others at his former workplace who also have pneumoconiosis.
He insists that the right laws are in place to protect them. They just need to be enforced.
“The central government policies are good, but those below don’t listen. Noone cares at a local level. All I ask is that they they just follow the policies, use the relevant documents to solve this. Then we will be satisfied.”
The amount Xiao is asking for in the compensation case is not a lot, especially when he’s already spent so much.
But Geoff Crothall hopes the case might become something bigger – a way to raise awareness within the mining community about potential health risks and their rights under the law.
“Because now most miners are migrant labourers who are really only concerned with getting enough wages to live on today, they don’t really think about the consequences once they leave a mine and they’re not aware of the problems of work-related illness or accidents until they actually happen. So there is a problem of raising awareness in the workforce of their rights and the avenues of redress that do actually exist.”
The first exchange of evidence took place on September 11.
The family is now waiting for news of the next hearing or a decision.
They say they recognise that this case represents more than just their own family’s suffering.