One Life, One Story…

No reporter does a better job of illuminating the vast complexity of modern Chinese life on a human scale than the Los Angeles Times’s Ching-Ching Ni. A few months back, I blogged about an incredibly moving piece of hers, “Loving Others’ Rejects, the story of an old man and his wife who rescue abandoned babies, literally from garbage heaps and the side of the road.

Now, Ni has written about the struggle of a young man who is dying from lung disease caused by years of working in a gemstone factory. I hesitate to edit Ni’s work, so here’s the beginning:

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 jewelry 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 earsplitting 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.

The area where Feng worked, near Shenzhen, processes some 70% of the world’s semiprecious stone jewelry, much of which ends up exported to US wholesalers. Not surprisingly, conditions in many of these factories are dismal:

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.”

Ni details Feng’s struggle to collect what he’s owed, in the face of incredible obstacles. The company literally packed up and moved its factory to avoid workers’ lawsuits; it further evaded them by changing its name – by one letter:

Furious, he tried in 2002 to apply for workers’ compensation from the Labor 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.”

Feng continues to struggle, and a group called the China Labor Bulletin is helping him with his case and living expenses. So far, victory has proven elusive:

The group relaunched 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…

…In May, the committee ruled in favor 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 Labor Bulletin case worker assisting Feng, said officials ordered the defunct Gaoya factory to pay Feng, not the working Gaoyi factory.

All of this takes place against the backdrop of Feng and his family’s grinding poverty, the motivation that drove him to work in such wretched conditions, in the hope of bettering their lives.

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.”

Read the whole thing. And think about how many more stories there are like this, behind the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the gadgets with which we amuse ourselves…

UPDATE CSR’s Stephen Frost points us to a Hong-Kong based campaign advocating better working conditions in the Chinese gemstone industry. There’s a letter to sign that you can direct to Hong Kong, American and European jewelry associations (though I’m not sure if the link to the American federation is working right now).

The Discussion: 16 Comments

in my opinion, this tragedy is more important than those GREAT ACHIEVEMENTS made by CCP or their GIANTS.

“human is first! Nation is second, and the king is third”.
i really hope common chinese can completely understand this remarks.

December 15, 2005 @ 12:48 am | Comment

So many “great achievements” are made on the backs of the common people.

December 15, 2005 @ 12:53 am | Comment

do you know now china govt is advocating another news. that news is “china govt will re-calculate its GDP, and be the TOP 4 economic body in this world,passing UK and French ”

many chinese is blindly proud of this news. but they forget that this “TOP 4 economy” is due to the appreciation of RMB.
and, common chinese still haven’t benefitted from economic development too much.

December 15, 2005 @ 2:16 am | Comment

If you’re interested in doing something about this issue, you can visit a site run by a couple of Hong Kong NGOs that have been working on this issue for some time. See the Gemstone Campaign by CIC/LAC. Their latest action was yesterday against a gem company in Hong Kong, which I’ll blog on tonight.

December 15, 2005 @ 4:27 am | Comment

Cutting gems in China

Guest blogger Lisa at Peking Duck linked to this story in the LA Times about silicosis in China’s gem factories. The article is well worth reading, and it reminded me of a protest a couple of days ago in Hong Kong against Hong Kong-invested jeweller K…

December 15, 2005 @ 6:02 am | Comment

Thanks Stephen.

Lisa, great post, despite the heartache one has to feel in reading it.

December 15, 2005 @ 6:42 am | Comment

Working conditions in the United States were similarly destructive during the Gilded Age; however, HK/Taiwan could catalyze liberalization of Chinese working conditions so that they improve faster than their American counterparts a century ago–if some people in the CCP would listen.

December 15, 2005 @ 8:44 am | Comment

Thanks Richard – but the person who really ought to get some praise is Ching Ching Ni – I once wrote to her after her fine piece a few years back on the Tibetan Wild Yak Brigade – she manages to find the heroic in so-called “ordinary people” with nearly every piece she writes.

December 15, 2005 @ 10:13 am | Comment

And Stephen, I’ll post your link as an update.

December 15, 2005 @ 10:16 am | Comment

Lisa: thanks for posting a link to the Gemstone Campaign as an update. This campaign is really gathering steam now and people are getting organised in ways that weren’t possible during the early days of documenting the toy, shoe and apparel industries in China (i.e., the mid- to late-1990s). The gem industry is starting to come under much more intense scrutiny, and I met someone in Paris several months ago from a big jewellery/watch company who has expressed much interest in what their company can do to alleviate some of the problems outlined. With papers like the LA Times writing stories it shouldn’t be long before these issues get onto the mainstream map and people start asking the same questions they asked Nike more than a decade ago. And I’m starting to see movement from the Chinese government on this one, too. At least one government department has shut down gem factories due to various concerns.

December 15, 2005 @ 8:42 pm | Comment

Stephen, I’m glad to do so. I consider myself somewhat informed about worker issues, and I had never heard about this.

Now I need to check and see if the link for the American petition is working!

December 15, 2005 @ 10:53 pm | Comment

I admire what Stephen and Lisa are doing. It is very sad to let you guys know that by far the most effective approach for this kind of problems is the pressure from those downstream buying companies. From this prospective, probably Walmart has done more than what our government has done for my fellow Chinese migrant workers. It is a shame.

December 16, 2005 @ 12:44 pm | Comment

Lisa and Stephen, I am not sure if the Gemstone Campaign is working or not either. After I signed up and sent out the petition letter, all I got is a blank page.

December 16, 2005 @ 12:50 pm | Comment

Lin, I emailed Stephen letting him know that I was having problems. Hopefully this will get fixed soon. In the meantime, keep trying.

December 16, 2005 @ 1:24 pm | Comment

This kind of thing will become more prevalent in these industries as Chinese wages rise. Domestic manufacturers are between a rock and a hard place. Every penny counts. If they put in safety measures, China suddenly isn’t quite as attractive a place to manufacture goods, given all the other costs they have to put up with – officials on the take, the ever-present risk of official confiscation of the entire business, et al. A big part of the reason many companies manufacture in China is the lack of regulation – unions are a joke, work hour regulations are minimal. Low wages are offset by infrastructure issues, corruption, a culture of theft, et al.

December 17, 2005 @ 1:48 pm | Comment

Stephen has contacted the labor organization and they are working to get their links up and running ASAP. I’ll post an update when it’s up.

December 18, 2005 @ 10:08 pm | Comment

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