Behind The Economic Development–the Loss of 40,000 Fingers Per Year
Behind The Economic Development–the Loss of 40,000 Fingers Per Year

Behind the economic development are countless stories of the sorrow, blood, and tears of workers from the Pearl River Delta.

Wounded Workers Thrown Aside Like Garbage

"Two months ago, my husband, Wang Fu, had the fingers of his right hand cut off by a machine at work. His boss sent him to a hospital in town for treatment. It was the first time we had ever been involved in something like that. We blindly accepted the factory officials' arrangement for my husband's care. We had no knowledge of hospitals at all. During the first operation, the hospital sewed my husband's fingers onto his chest to help with tissue recovery. The second operation involved wrapping skin cut from his thigh onto the fingers and then sewing the fingers on the thigh to let them grow slowly. The doctor said that one month later the fingers would be removed from the thigh, sewn back onto his hand, and that my husband would be able to leave the hospital soon. However, only a week later, the wound on his leg started to bleed. The little finger and the ring finger turned black. The end of the index finger and the middle finger also turned black. The doctor said my husband's body quality was bad and could not absorb nutrition well, which led to the slow recovery of the wounds. The doctor also warned us that the hospital would not take any responsibilities once we left the hospital. I was afraid that his entire arm would be gone if we continued to stay in this hospital. Therefore we decided to transfer to another hospital. I really wanted to find out whether it was because of my husband's bad body quality, or if it was the bad treatment from the hospital.

Wang Fu is a 17-year-old resident from Lankao County, Henan Province. On February 28, 2004, he went to Tai X group to work the punch machine. When he was hired to work for the factory, they did not sign any contract with him. He also did not get any training on safety. He was sent directly to work.

"Each time I worked on that punch machine I trembled with fear. The sound made when the punch machine came down was very intimidating. In the afternoon of April 3, 2004, there was something wrong with the machine, and my right hand was crushed by the machine. Five of my fingers were instantly cut off. I started crying for help. The factory manager asked the security staff to send me to the hospital. After arriving at the hospital, the security guard did not want to go in with me. I had to get help myself while enduring excruciating pain. After a while, the factory leader returned with money and told the doctor, "Don't put his fingers back on; just wrap up his wound."

Xiong Xiangjun worked at a family workshop in Zhiying Town, Youngkang City. His job was to run a punch machine. Each day he had to work continuously for 14 hours. Horrible disaster finally struck and his right hand was chopped off by the punch machine.

"The doctor did not listen to my boss and put my four fingers back on. I permanently lost my thumb. What really makes me angry was that I heard my thumb was found at the scene of the accident, but the factory leader threw it away. The boss in the factory did this often. Many job-related injuries had happened in the factory and he had never compensated anyone. In this hospital, there are eight wounded workers from my factory. I heard many fellow workers saying that my boss might be a local representative of the National People's Congress. I am very scared, and do not know what to do next. The factory is not giving me a penny to cover charges for my stay at the hospital and sent no one to accompany me to the hospital to make sure I got the care I needed. Only my uncle is here taking care of me. He buys me food with the money he gets from selling parts he picked up in the garbage."

Feng Lianchen felt very sad every time when he heard such stories. "The behavior of such heartless employers has pushed workers to the edge. I want to record the miseries of these fellow workers. We do not want to have job-related accidents happening to us. Sometimes we were treated like garbage–thrown away into a dark corner to live or die."

Feng decided to investigate the reasons behind the excessive number of surgeries, related expenses, and the poor safety record of surrounding factories. The following notes are Feng's observations.

Why is Hand Surgery so Well-developed in Guangdong?

There are so many injured hands that there is a good market for it. In the doctor's office at Fangshuquan Hospital, two doctors are busy writing patients' case histories. After hearing my purpose for seeking an interview, one of the doctors said they need to get permission from the hospital's main office.

In hospital's main office, I showed my journalist's ID. The staff member looked at me with suspicion and asked, "What on earth do you want to do an interview about?"

"I want to get some information on the situation of hand surgery here."

"Oh, hand surgery. Many accidents happen in the workplace. Will it affect our investment environment here if you report this?"

I did not know how to respond. Before deciding whether they would grant an interview, they first thought about the investment environment.

Doctor Xie, director of hand surgery, was transferred from the orthopedics department when the hand surgery department was established in 1999. There are a total of 12 doctors in the hand surgery department. On the average, they get 15 to 20 emergency cases each day. Sometimes they get more patients. Most of the patients come in because of accidents in the workplace.

"I heard that Guangdong is the best developed region in hand surgery. Am I correct?" I asked.

"From the medical technique aspect, it is not the best in the country. But from the aspect of clinical technique, it is the top in the country. There are lots of hand traumas here. Doctors have abundant clinical experience."

"Why are there so many patients with hand trauma here?"

"Most of the businesses here are in the area of machining and manufacturing. Therefore, there are many hand injuries. You can visit Shunde and Shenzhen. The hand surgery there is also booming. They even have special hand surgery hospitals."

Ten years ago, many hospitals' orthopedics departments did not want to perform finger surgery. One finger operation takes at least two to three hours. Where would the hospital find so many doctors to do that? Now some people have seen the market need and have opened hand surgery hospitals, and they have made a great profit from it. The cost of putting one finger back is 5,000 Yuan. There are tens of thousands of fingers severed each year, plus other hand trauma. You can image what a huge market this is."

If you search for "severed fingers, hospitals" on the internet, you can quickly get over a thousand links, but they are mainly located in the Pearl River Delta area.

The website of Heping Hand Surgery Hospital in Guangzhou states that since its establishment, they have accepted over 6,000 emergency cases. The success rate of replanting a finger is about 95%. This is an unusually high success rate nationally and internationally.

The Hengsheng Hand Surgery Hospital was a privately owned hospital established in 1993. The hospital didn't want to disclose the actual number of patients being treated. Yet on their website, it stated that its dean Huang Weidong has personally conducted over 3,000 hand surgeries.

The Helping Hand Surgery Hospital in Shunde is quite famous in the Pearl River Delta area. Two years ago, this hospital's predecessor, the surgical department of the Sanzhou Hand Surgery Hospital, was still located in a worn-out three level building. In 2004, two new, tall buildings were built from the ground up. A 30 year-old hand surgeon said at the United Nations' Labor Issue Forum that he had operated on around 4,000 patients who had a severed finger replanted. That's about one case per day on average. He was quite at ease while he was talking about the number of crushed fingers, yet everyone else was shocked on hearing the large number.

In Guangdong, nearly every town has a special hand surgery hospital. Doctor Song estimated that the total number might be over one hundred. “Why are there so many surgery hospitals in Guangdong? It is because of lots of broken fingers; that creates the market. The large market gave birth to these hand surgery hospitals."

In the beginning, facing the wounded, crushed hands and the blood, Doctor Song was sometimes shocked. “There are various hand injuries. Some are being flattened; some have the entire palm cut off; some are burned out… and some are being compressed into putty. The only option is to cut the hand off or to make up by shearing the tissue from other spots of the body. When I saw these injuries all the time, I became numb to it too."

The statistics show that the most direct cause for job related injuries was mainly due to machines crushing or severing workers' hands, which accounted for 75.8%. Fingers were the most regularly injured body part. Among the injured workers surveyed there were 401 people whose fingers were injured, which accounted for 69%; there were 765 injured fingers.

Sixty-three percent of injured workers didn't have proper contracts with the companies. Only 11 percent of the companies that had injured workers had joined the worker's union.

Sixty-six percent of those workers being surveyed work more than eight hours per day. The average work day is 10.18 hours. Fifty-one percent have to work overtime frequently. The minimum overtime is one hour, and the maximum is eight hours. Seventy percent of those surveyed did not have any holidays.

The majority of those injured on the job didn't get paid during their recovery as they should have, according to regulations. Only 20 percent of the companies paid injured workers' wages. Sixteen percent paid a reduced wage. Twenty-five percent didn't pay, and 39 percent didn't disclose whether they paid or not.

How Were Their Fingers Injured?

According to a Guangdong media that published a report on job related injuries in 1998, in the Long Gang and Baoan areas in Shenzhen, there were more than 10,000 accidents, mostly resulting in broken fingers. This got the attention of the central government. Four ministries and commissions of the central government established an investigative group. At that time, the situation was quite serious. In the Qinghai Electrical Machinery Plant in Shajing town of Baoan district, Shenzhen, within half year, 48 workers were involved in an on–the-job injury that resulted in at least one broken finger. This media also reported that starting from 1998, the local department of labor had stopped collecting statistics about job related injuries.

"There are at least 30,000 finger injuries per year in the Pearl River Delta area. This accounts for more than 40,000 fingers cut off by machine." This was Zeng Feiyang's estimate. This is how he did the estimate: Five volunteers were assigned to visit workers injured on the job. Each volunteer surveyed four hospitals three times a month. Each time, the volunteer would record at least five cases in each hospital. For one year, they filled more than 3,600 forms, i.e., 3,600 injury in job-related accidents. In the Pearl River Delta, there are more than 100 hand surgery hospitals. What the volunteers surveyed was actually a small portion of the injured population. Zeng's estimate was accepted by some experts who were concerned about the labor problem.

During the past ten years, the Pearl River Delta's economy has been vigorously developing. However, the wage level of the laborers who created this miracle still remains at the same level as ten years ago. They are still suffering the affliction of severe injuries on the job.

Zeng Feiyang believes that the cause of the frequent on-the-job accidents in the Pearl River Delta was that some or all of the industrial machines and equipment were obsolete or aging. Much of the obsolete machinery and equipment was imported from overseas.

Lack of training for the operators was also one of the main factors. Of the 40 injured workers surveyed in the hospital by the reporter, none of them acknowledged having been given any safety training.

How Do Injured Workers Survive?

Where do the injured workers go after they leave the hospital and how do they live? When the reporter called their cell phone numbers listed in the visitor's book, nearly all of the phones had been cut off.

Students of the Social Studies Department of Guangdong Business School once made a follow-up survey of these people. Some of them went back to their hometowns and operated small shops with the compensation they had received for their injuries. Some remained in Guangdong waiting for the verdict in a drawn-out lawsuit.

According to law, any arbitration should be done before the actual prosecution of the case. The lawsuit costs for non-local laborers has become higher and higher. This has caused the victims who have already been injured to suffer even further. For an ordinary case of on-the-job injury, the lawsuit time normally took about 1,070 days for the non-local injured worker. Because the lawsuit time was too long, the majority of the workers had no choice but to give up. In the end, their legitimate rights and interests were unprotected by law.

Farmers and Laborers Have a High Rate of Death from Occupational Disease

Because most farmers and laborers can only get jobs where the working conditions are poor, the pay is low. The insurance and occupational protection are not guaranteed for them either.

According to statistics from the China State Administration of Work Safety, last year the number of people who died from injuries on the job in China reached as high as 136,000. Among them, the majority were farmers and laborers, especially in mining, construction, and hazardous chemical industries. These are the three most common industries for farmers and laborers. The farmer-laborer casualty rate accounts for 80% or more of the total casualties.

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