MAC: Mines and Communities

China update: is "growth" with safety a chimera?

Published by MAC on 2005-01-02

China update: is "growth" with safety a chimera?

2nd January 2005

Can China possibly continue its GDP "growth" rate of 9%, while effectively clamping down on the most dangerous pollution on the planet? The regime seems to think so - continually coming up with new targets and intentions.

However, these may simply increase the number of "illegal" new plants, while doing little to abate the deadly impacts of current operations (as in the gemstone industry) or the rate of toxic "accidents" - such as happened at a zinc plant three weeks ago.

Stifling in Jade Dust

At 31, Feng Xingzhong is dying after years of toiling in one of China's gemstone factories. He's not alone -- except in speaking up for justice.

by Ching-Ching Ni, New York Times Times Staff Writer

14th December 2005

HAIFENG, China — The boulders were as big as farm animals, and for $20 a month Feng Xingzhong's job was to slice them with an electric saw, cutting the hulks into fillets small enough to throw into a bowl.

Other workers in the jewellery factory would trim the pieces of jade, turquoise, onyx and other gemstones into little hearts and beads, polish them, drill holes and string them onto earrings, bracelets and necklaces to be shipped off to American shoppers.

Feng thought little about that, or anything else during his ear splitting 12-hour shift. By day's end, he looked like a coal miner emerging from the shaft, covered from head to toe in red, green or yellow dust, depending on the stone he had been cutting.

From age 18 to 26, Feng toiled without so much as a mask, trying to turn himself from an impoverished peasant into a prosperous city worker. He married a fellow employee, had two sons.

"We had a beautiful dream," Feng said. "To make some money, go home and start a small business."

Today, Feng hopes mostly to live long enough to collect some money from the factory where he developed silicosis, an incurable ailment known as dust lung that kills more than 24,000 Chinese workers each year in professions such as mining, quarrying, construction and shipbuilding.

Most slowly suffocate without protest. But not Feng. He sought workers' compensation. He sued his employer in two courts. He picketed near the company headquarters. He went to arbitration with the help of a Hong Kong labor group and even won a judgment.

But he hasn't received so much as a penny.

"I could die in a year or two," said Feng, now 31, who speaks in a soft, wispy voice and coughs frequently. "I am still so young. I have a wife, two children and an elderly mother. No amount of money can bring back my life. All I want is some justice."

The factory where Feng worked was one of more than 2,000 small and medium-sized similar operations near the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. The area processes about 50,000 tons of semiprecious stone jewellery a year, 70% of the world's total, according to the state-run People's Daily newspaper.

When Feng started in the early 1990s, his factory, called Gaoya, had about 50 employees. The crowded workshop had no ventilation system.

"We asked for masks, but they said no. There was no why," Feng said. "They knew we were peasants thrilled to have a factory job."

The firm that labour activists and Feng identify as the factory's parent company, Ko Ngar Gems Ltd. in Hong Kong, refuses to discuss its factories or divulge which retailers it supplies. But many Ko Ngar products end up in Americans' jewellery boxes.

U.S. companies imported more than 118,000 pounds of goods made by Ko Ngar this year alone, according to the PIERS import-export database, which gathers information from U.S. Customs, vessel manifests and ports.

Some of the American firms, such as Oriental Crest Ltd. of Houston, are wholesalers, while others, such as Fire Mountain Gems of Grants Pass, Ore., sell beads and jewellery supplies over the Internet.

Oriental Crest Ltd. declined to comment on conditions at Ko Ngar factories. As for Fire Mountain Gems, President Stuart Freedman said his firm would "be very surprised if [Ko Ngar] were doing anything to endanger the workers."

"To my knowledge there is no problem with the way this company does business," he said, adding that Fire Mountain has bought from Ko Ngar since the mid-1990s.

Freedman said he had inspected some Chinese factories, but not a Ko Ngar facility. Even if he had, it's unclear whether he would have found objectionable conditions.

Feng and other workers said a few long-term American customers would occasionally conduct inspections. A few days before a visit, he said, the managers would order a massive cleanup.

"The boss would also give some people the day off so it looks less crowded and dusty," Feng said.

At night, Feng and his co-workers slept in run-down dormitories with plywood bunk beds. With no showers, they washed using towels and a bucket of water.

"I lived like that for eight years," Feng said. "I gave them the best years of my life."

Despite the harsh conditions, Feng stayed because there were no job prospects back home in his rural village. He married a stone polisher at the factory, Mao Guangchun, who, like Feng, was from the central province of Sichuan.

When Mao became pregnant, they went back to Feng's village, trekking four days by train and bus and on foot through muddy fields and wild bamboo groves. Their son, Liang, was born there, and they left him with Feng's parents.

"Since I left I've been home a total of maybe five or six times," Feng said. "It takes eight days on the road just to get there and back. We rarely get that much time off."

Two years later, Mao was pregnant again. Though having a second child would violate China's one-child policy and bring a $1,200 fine, the couple couldn't bring themselves to get an abortion. Feng himself was a "surplus" child, and his parents had to pay a fine for his birth in 1974.

"I was the only son," Feng said. "I knew how hard that was on my father. I thought two sons would be so much better."

The couple returned to the village, where their second son, Peng, was born. Mao and Feng were back at work soon after to earn money to pay the fine.

In the late 1990s, Feng's chest started to hurt. He felt short of breath and was coughing a lot. Other workers were having similar symptoms. The management organized a physical check up for the employees.

Feng and several others were told that they had tuberculosis. Feng recalls that his boss said the ailment was contagious but curable. The sick workers were given $250, told to go home, rest half a year, and when they returned, a less strenuous job would be waiting.

"When I came back, he had packed up the factory and the hundreds of workers, moved out of town and changed the factory name," Feng said. "When I found them again, they pushed me out the door and said they didn't have anything to do with me."

Feng's condition didn't improve even after he had taken tuberculosis medication for a year. He sought another evaluation — this time from a doctor he selected. The diagnosis was silicosis.

"The doctor told me there's no cure for this disease anywhere in the world," Feng said.

Furious, he tried in 2002 to apply for workers' compensation from the Labour Dispute Arbitration Committee in Haifeng. His factory had moved there from nearby Huizhou and changed its name from Gaoya to Gaoyi.

He was turned down on the grounds that the factory where he had worked was in Huizhou.

Next, he tried to sue. But two courts rejected his case, ruling that the factory in Haifeng was not the same business as the one in Huizhou.

"They changed their name from Gaoya to Gaoyi," Feng said. "One letter, and they are able to dodge all responsibility."

Labor rights advocates and many academics say such suits are an uphill battle in a country where the legal procedures often favour employers.

"In China, legal corruption is everywhere and the laws are stacked against the poor," said Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at People's University in Beijing. "It is almost impossible for migrant workers to seek redress and protect themselves."

Feng and other workers believe their old bosses paid off the courts. "They call themselves the 'people's court,' the 'people's law.' It's all nonsense," said Wu Guojun, 41, a slight man who is also ill. "All they care about is money."

Feng borrowed money from friends and relatives for legal fees and living expenses. He's nearly $10,000 in debt.

Just when things looked hopeless, the China Labour Bulletin offered to help. The group put Feng up in an apartment in Shenzhen and helped restart his case. And it gave him a public platform to air his grievances.

When an international jewellery convention met in Hong Kong in June, Feng and other workers showed up carrying X-rays of their blackened lungs. In a hoarse voice, Feng shouted his boss' name through a microphone and cried, "No blood money!"

It was the first time he felt real hope since becoming ill.

"I didn't believe there could be a group out there willing to stand up for us and fight for our rights," Feng said later.

The group re-launched his claim against Gaoya through an arbitration committee in Huidong County, the site of the factory where he worked. He sought $76,000 in compensation for his disability and to cover medical and living expenses for himself and his family.

The Labour Bulletin determined that the Gaoya factory was run by Ko Ngar, which now has about 1,000 employees, headquarters in Hong Kong and a new building in Haifeng. Ko Ngar is written in the same Chinese characters as Gaoya. Ko Ngar is the pronunciation in Cantonese, and Gaoya in Mandarin.

In May, the committee ruled in favour of Feng. The factory was ordered to pay him $3,800 for medical expenses, plus $100 a month for the rest of his life.

It was a hollow victory. Staphany Wong, the Labour Bulletin case worker assisting Feng, said officials ordered the defunct Gaoya factory to pay Feng, not the working Gaoyi factory.

"Of course the original factory no longer exists, so there is nobody there to pay anything to Mr. Feng," she said.

The labour group is trying to appeal. In the meantime, it has been staging more protests in Hong Kong and trying to make Western firms more aware of the poor factory conditions.

"Most people already know about the fate of Chinese coal miners. But few are aware of the poor work safety issues faced by China's jewellery workers," said Han Dongfang, director of China Labour Bulletin.

"We are trying to draw attention to international buyers, to tell them these workers are dying off one by one."

As Feng waits in Shenzhen for his appeal to move through the bureaucracy, his family is scattered and struggling to survive.

His wife is working in another city. Her room is too run-down and cramped for Feng to live there full time, and there is no phone or fax to allow him to keep up with his case.

His sons, now 8 and 10, rarely see their parents. They still live in the remote village where they were born, looked after by Feng's ailing, widowed mother.

Large cobwebs dangle from the concrete walls of their farmhouse, and bugs crawl in the kitchen. All they have to spice up their meals of rice and scavenged vegetables is salt, held in a dirty sack. Barefoot and dressed in dirty clothes, the children kill time watching a tiny black-and-white TV with one blurry channel showing cartoons in the afternoons.

Feng has not told his mother about his ailment. But she suspects he is dying.

"I know a guy from our village who did the same work, he died three years ago. I think my son has the same disease…. I know he probably won't live long," said Li Sulan, 64, who is blind in one eye.

Her biggest worry is her grandchildren. "If my son dies and I die too, and his wife doesn't come back, what's going to happen to these kids?" she said.

Li calls her son from the village pay phone, crying and asking when he'll come home. Feng always tells her soon. Very soon.

"I want to go home, to take care of her and the kids," he said. "But I can't. I have no money."

Mao is the family's only support. She is still a stone polisher, now working at one of the largest factories in Haifeng, which has about 3,000 employees.

Until this year, if workers there wanted to wear a mask to protect themselves from the dust, their boss would deduct about 25 cents per mask from their pay. Making barely $100 a month with only one or two days off, many workers went without. Others wore the same dirty mask for days. Finally, after 50 workers became ill, management started offering free masks.

Mao sends about $25 a month to her boys. She keeps two laminated photos of them in her tiny room. It's just big enough for one bed and a small, red plastic basin to catch raindrops that leak through the ceiling. She's tried to patch the worst spots with cardboard and paper.

Even if she had the space, the cost of food and schooling is too high to raise the boys here. She envies fellow workers who have brought their children to this shantytown. "When I see them living together as a family, with their children by their side and acting so happy, I go crazy thinking about my own family," Mao said. "We are scattered in the wind like loose sand."

Feng must travel several hours by bus to visit his wife. They see each other once every few months. When he makes the trip, he puts on a clean white shirt and tries to pretend he feels as good as he looks.

Feng tries to offer his wife hope that their family will one day be together. But when they meet, they spend most of the time in silence. She blinks away tears; he stares into space. They both know he's dying.

"When I see people still working at jewellery factories now I try to tell them you are still young, go do something else," Feng said. "No matter how much money they give you, it's not worth it. My today is their tomorrow."

The report by China Labour Bulletin on silicosis in the gemstone industry can be accessed here:

China to Monitor Economy-Wide Energy Efficiency

by Planet Ark, CHINA,

29th December 2005

BEIJING - China said on Wednesday it would begin monitoring economy-wide energy efficiency, pursuing a goal of using less oil, coal and gas for each unit of production as its national income surges.

With scientists globally worried about how much environmental damage can come from China's 1.3 billion people seeking western living standards, the statistics bureau said it would compile an index showing each region's energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product.

The statistics, to be published every six months, would also monitor energy consumption by large industrial enterprises, Li Deshui, head of the National Bureau of Statistics, was quoted as saying in official media.

Data gathering teams would be set up next year, when the figures would be first published, the Economic Daily newspaper quoted Li as saying.

China's policy makers have placed increasing importance on improving energy efficiency, as the economy grows rapidly but environmental problems continue to mount.

Energy efficiency features as a key goal in the five year plan for 2006 to 2010.

The country is already the world's second-largest consumer of oil, even though the average Chinese has about one-thirtieth the income of the average American.

China consumes over four times more energy to generate a unit of GDP than the average Group of Seven developed country, according to the Asian Development Bank.

And its economy is growing at about 9 percent annually.
(US $1 = 8.072 yuan)


ANALYSIS - China Metal Firms Feeling Heat on Environment

23th December 2005

SHANGHAI - China's burgeoning metals industry is facing increased policing of air and water pollution, which authorities hope will help push the sector toward consolidation and better technology.

But while environmental protection could force some metals plants to merge or upgrade, it could also have the perverse effect of encouraging the worst offenders to bring their old practices to new areas.

Pollution has become a hot topic in China, as newspapers feel freer to report and citizens demand more from their local governments. After an initial cover-up, the nation has followed a toxic benzene slick as it wends its way along north eastern rivers that provide drinking water to Chinese and Russian cities.

The Shaoguan smelter, China's third-largest zinc smelter owned by Shenzhen Zhongjin Lingnan Non-ferrous Metal Co. Ltd, shut temporarily this week after the local government found high levels of cadmium in river water.

"If you think environmental matters don't matter, take another look. There's an environmental agency office right inside the Zhuzhou smelter," Wang Jianjun, import and export manager for Zhuye Torch Metals Co. Ltd, told a conference this month.

Beijing believes that larger plants will allow for better pollution control, and is pushing smaller, less disciplined plants and mines to close.

The deaths of an average of 20 coal miners a day last year, and a similar series of large mine accidents this year, has forced provincial governments to crack down on corruption and lax standards that plague the industry.

And city planners in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong are moving steel plants far from the city centre - giving Shougang Group and Guangdong Iron & Steel Group a chance to upgrade facilities, but inconveniencing ThyssenKrupp's plans for its stainless steel plant on Shanghai's Huangpu River.

Environmental officials say they hope performance targets for "Green GDP" - which accounts for the damage caused by industrial development - will help steer local officials away from approving every project that promises to lift the local economy.

But consistent enforcement, and actually using fines to help mitigate the damage caused, are also necessary for China to make environmental progress, they say.


Hunan Province provides a good example of the eddies and cross-currents in Beijing's overall push to upgrade its polluting industries.

The Xiang River carries away waste-water from paper mills, zinc and indium smelters. It is the second largest river to flow into Dongting Lake, which China is rehabilitating to control floods along the Yangtze.

In the middle is the provincial capital of Changsha, a city of more than 6 million that installed a sewage treatment system a few years ago and is now developing a second source of drinking water. The provincial People's Congress, a party representative body, takes the state of the Xiang very seriously.

"It's gotten a lot cleaner since they changed policies and stopped flushing city water into the river," said a local resident surnamed Hua, who wandered over to the riverside to drop in a line on a foggy December afternoon.

The river smelled fresh, and fishing families sell turtles, catfish and carp from sanpans pulled up on its sandy banks.

Last winter, low water levels raised pollutants beyond permitted levels, spurring the provincial and city environmental bureaus to shut indium plants in Zhuzhou, a small city about an hour upstream from Changsha. The closures helped push indium prices to historic highs.

But new indium plants have popped up in Chenzhou, an even smaller city further from the regulators in Changsha. Others have moved to the poorer province of Yunnan, where local governments are unlikely to say no to a new investor who comes knocking at their door.

"We don't approve projects that raise pollution above the permitted levels. But sometimes there are illegal projects, that open furtively," said Shang Shouguo, department head for Hunan Environmental Bureau's anti-pollution department, in an interview this month.

"If we can find them, then we will shut them, but sometimes they aren't easy to find."

Story by Lucy Hornby


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