Feature: Occupational Safety and Health
Occupational poisoning in China[1]

Feature: Occupational Safety and Health Occupational poisoning in China

Shing Hong Samuel Li, China Programme Coordinator, Asia Monitor Resource Centre


Xiaoxiao was a young woman in her early twenties, dreaming about building a bright future, just like millions of migrant workers who come to look for jobs in Guangdong, the southern province of China. In 2007, she started working in a factory packaging electronic products; after two years she was diagnosed with leukaemia. The illness has caused physical and mental suffering, and the medical expenses left her family penniless. She applied for an official registration (identification) of her illness at the Guangdong Occupational Diseases Prevention and Treatment Centre, but it was a long and winding road to achieve any justice. Her employer refused to provide the necessary documents for the official registration (identification), such as proof of the labour relationship, and intentionally delayed the process, causing her to wait endlessly for any subsidy or compensation.


Yet, Xiaoxiao's is not a singular case. Countless workers have lost their health, families and lives in China, the world’s factory, due to poor labour conditions and exploitation. Occupational diseases have gained social attention in the past few years. The desperate and shocking gesture of Zhang Haichao – slicing open his own chest to prove he was suffering from pneumoconiosis, opened our eyes to the difficulties of having occupational diseases diagnosed, identified and compensated in China.


In China, semi-official statistics show that more than 200 million workers are suffering from occupational hazards. Between 1950s and 2012, 800,000 cases of occupational diseases have been recorded officially. Most of them are pneumoconiosis and some 50,000 are occupational poisoning-related. 14,000 new cases of occupational diseases were recorded in 2007 and by 2012, 27,000 new cases were added that year alone. Among them, every day 2,000 new cases of occupational poisoning are reported. Benzene poisoning has significantly increased in recent years, becoming the major cause of chronic occupational poisoning. Both academics and citizens believe the recorded cases are just a tip of the iceberg, with under-reporting a common problem. A labour NGO in Dongguan city has recorded 50 cases of benzene poisoning in one year alone; a figure higher than the official number of new cases for the whole country. A huge discrepancy exists between official statistics and the reality, as many poisoned workers don’t receive proper diagnosis and official registration (identification), while others return to their home villages or give up seeking compensation due to the lengthy procedures and high costs involved. Statistics from civil society and official sources point in the same direction, i.e. more and more workers are poisoned by benzene and suffering from benzene-caused leukaemia. In some manufacturing plants, the unprotected and undisclosed use of organic solvents have poisoned workers in large numbers.


Workers should not be seen as 'factors of production' but as human beings. Occupational poisoning is harming the workers' health, their families and their lives irreversibly; compensation cannot restore their health and restore their devastated families. Therefore, apart from supporting poisoned workers to get diagnosis, compensation and treatment, more attention should be paid to prevention. Prevention, and strengthening the supervision on abusive employers and inefficient law enforcement agencies, are the two core strategies to ensure work safety.


Encouragingly, in 2013 a NGO organized by victims of benzene-caused leukaemia and other concerned citizens launched a joint petition, to demand that a ban on the use of benzene.


1.  Information is collected from two publications of Asia Monitor Resource Centre, “Occupational Poisoning in China” and “Invisible victims of development: health and safety of Asian workers”, together with materials and statistics from other Chinese labour organizations .