WANG FENG PING: I often dream that I’m out in the countryside near the village where my family lives. In the dream, I’m on my way back home, walking through the fields on a rough and bumpy mountain road. The road is very uneven. Everything seems familiar to me, although there are some mud-brick houses nearby which actually don’t exist near my village. I don’t know why but every time I walk along that road in my dream, I lose my way. Suddenly everything gets dark and I can’t see anything. Then I think, if I switch on my mobile phone, maybe I can see a little better. I just want to have some light.
I usually have this dream when I’m in a bad mood, for example when something unpleasant has happened to me and I feel helpless. When I’m happy and everything is going well for some time, the dream will not come and bother me. I feel this dream is like a person who comes to visit me from time to time. I’ve had this dream many, many times, but still every time when I wake up from it I feel sick at heart and I want to cry. It makes me feel scared and helpless.
I actually posted this dream on my blog. My friends always try to comfort me; they think this dream has to do with the things I’ve been going through in the last few years. They say those things must have made me feel very helpless and that’s why I have this recurrent dream. I don’t know if that’s the reason, but it does give me some comfort when my friends say those things. It makes me feel that there are people who understand me. Yet sometimes I still feel the pain and the grief. Actually I don’t know how to describe what happened in those two years.
About five or six years ago, there was a case of cadmium poisoning at the Chaoba battery factory in Huizhou. Many workers from the factory were affected. They started feeling tired and sick and their backs would hurt, so they went to the hospital even the doctors couldn’t find an explanation. But there was one worker who got a chance to go to the Workers Disease Prevention Hospital in the province of Guangdong. There she learned that cadmium could affect people’s health, so she thought that maybe this was the reason for the situation of the workers from her factory. She had a medical examination and it turned out that she had high levels of cadmium in her blood. Then she brought the news back to her colleagues at the factory. Some of them also went to the hospital in Guangdong to have their blood tested, and the result was the same.
So the workers went to the management of the factory and demanded an explanation. That was at the end of 2003. The company completely ignored the issue for one or two months and didn’t give the workers any response. Then workers started going to the hospital on their own account, paying the cost of the examination from their own money. More and more workers went to have their blood examined, and more and more of them found that their blood was contaminated with cadmium. This went on until April or May of 2004. Then the workers went on strike, demanding medical examinations for all employees.
Because of the strike, the government showed up at the factory and arranged medical examinations for the workers. There were more than 1000 workers at the Chaoba factory. At first, they started testing the workers’ blood. It turned out that almost all the workers who were tested had high levels of cadmium in their blood. But then they changed the method of examination to testing the workers’ urine instead of their blood, which resulted in fewer cases of high cadmium levels. Still, about 400 or 500 workers had high levels of cadmium detected in their blood.
The examinations were done in groups. The first group of workers was examined in May 2004, and I think the results of those examinations are credible. But until my group was examined in September 2004, the testing methods got more and more dubious. At first, workers were admitted to the hospital when they had high levels of cadmium in their blood. Then at some point they changed the method and only those who had high cadmium levels in their urine were admitted to the hospital. But some time later, they changed the method again, and now they only admitted those workers who effectively had poisonous cadmium levels in their urine, which were even fewer.
I was tested in September of 2004 and my test results showed that my cadmium levels were much higher than what was considered poisonous. But I wasn’t sent to the hospital. All they did was arrange for a second test within a month’s time. I think there were about a hundred other people from my group who also had very high cadmium levels, but after the second test, all except nine of them suddenly had normal cadmium levels. The situation at the factory was completely chaotic at that time. We were constantly arguing with the management and making demands, but they just told us that our test results were normal and then ignored us.
The company paid one or two months of treatment for those workers who were admitted to the hospital. I remember they were in a very bad condition. Actually there is no way to get cadmium out of the body, but at Guangzhou hospital they used some drug, which supposedly did just that. After the workers had been injected this drug, their skin started to peel off their bodies, which looked very scary, so the remaining workers were afraid of going to the hospital. Because of these side effects, the hospital stopped using this drug.
After one or two months of treatment, the workers were sent home. They were given another examination, which supposedly showed that they were cured. This was also reported in the news. But actually this is impossible. Cadmium stays in the body for 10 to 20 years, so how could these workers be cured after only one month of treatment? We didn’t understand that. Some of the workers insisted that they weren’t cured yet and needed to continue the treatment, but they were expelled from the hospital by force. The hospital actually called the police to throw them out.
I remember one of the workers got so distressed by all this that something flipped in her mind and she ran away, simply disappeared. This story was reported on the Internet. Her husband and her son had gone to see her at the hospital but she wasn’t there! It took a long time to find her.
At that time I went to Huizhou hospital to visit my co-workers and I saw that they weren’t getting any treatment at all. But after one or two months, they were told that they were cured and sent home! They were told to send a urine sample to Guangzhou for testing and then they were given a paper, which said they were cured and could leave the hospital. In this way, they “cured” hundreds of workers. According to a media report, there were 177 workers under observation, but actually there should have been much more, maybe 300 or 400. I think the hospital was forced to do these things by the government or maybe they were bribed by the company. Anyway, afterwards the factory invited some so-called experts to give us a lecture. They said we could get rid of the cadmium in our bodies by drinking more water and doing sports. Of course that was nonsense, and now we know that it was just a plain lie, but at that moment we had no other information that what those “experts” told us.
The Chaoba factory was built in 1994, and until 2004 there had never been a case of cadmium poisoning. At least, none had been detected. But during those ten years, the company had never told their workers that cadmium was toxic. Actually there were other toxic substances in the factory besides cadmium, but the workers were never informed about these dangers and protection was very deficient. For example, some workers didn’t have any masks. Others had masks made of paper, thin paper which let all the dust through. Almost all workers had red, irritated nostrils.
And of course the dust was on our uniforms. We didn’t know that at that time, so we went to have lunch in our uniforms and we didn’t take them off before going to our dormitories. So the toxic dust was carried to many other places and affected people who didn’t work inside the factory. Also, there was only one central air-conditioning system for the whole factory and the same tubes that came out of the workshops led through the offices, so the dust spread throughout the whole building.
When the pollution was discovered, the managers didn’t want to take any responsibility. They simply ignored the issue. Then, later, when the workers found out by themselves that they had been poisoned, the managers sent them to hospital and paid some so-called “experts” to lie to them. How are you supposed to get rid of large amounts of cadmium in your body in only one or two months? It’s impossible.
Then they expelled the workers from the hospital, but that was only the first step. The second step was that they expelled those workers from the factory. They gave them two weeks to decide if they wanted to stay or leave. If they decided to leave the factory, they would get a compensation: 3000 RMB if only the first test had been positive, and 8000 RMB if both tests had been positive. If you chose the compensation, you had to leave the factory within 15 days. If you didn’t go, you wouldn’t get anything. Many workers were afraid to stay at the factory because of the pollution and also because of all the bad things that had happened, so more than 90% of them decided to leave the factory.
But after they left, they realized they had been cheated by the company. The money they had been paid was not enough even to cover their medical expenses. Cadmium has negative effects on the body for a very long time. I stayed at the factory even though my first test had shown that I had very high cadmium levels. I just kept working normally, sometimes I felt a little strange but I didn’t pay much attention to it. Many other workers were in the same situation, sometimes we felt tired and thought there must be something wrong, but we just continued working. We felt intimidated by the factory management, but also because we saw how the other workers had been cheated into leaving the factory.
After they left the factory, the company simply ignored those workers. But by and by, through the Internet and by consulting some experts, they found out about the true effects that cadmium has on the human body. Also, more and more of them found that their condition was getting worse. So they started joining together in order to file a lawsuit against the company. I don’t know much about the law, but I know that Chaoba factory has been breaking the law for more than 10 years. According to the law on the prevention and treatment of occupational diseases, the company should have paid medical examinations for all workers and told them about the dangers of cadmium. They didn’t do that. Inspections showed that the factory’s safety measures didn’t meet national standards and that contamination was higher than permitted by the law. And this had been so for more than 10 years. But when the workers went to court against the company, they were told that there was no legal ground for their complaint and that they couldn’t get more compensation besides what they had already gotten.
The lawsuit lasted until 2006. That year I read on the Internet that two or three workers from the Xianjin factory had died because of cadmium poisoning. The news report said that one of them, a girl called Fu Wengqin, had died of renal failure. She had been working at the factory for only two years. When she had started working there, she had been nineteen and perfectly healthy. But after only two years she died of renal failure due to cadmium poisoning. This really scared all of us very much.
I started feeling really awful after I read about Fu Wengqin. I also thought about my test results from 2004, which had said that everything was normal. Was that true? I wanted to find out, so I had my kidney checked. It turned out that one of my kidneys had already failed. Then I talked to the management of the factory and applied to undergo the diagnostic procedure for occupational diseases. This was towards the end of 2006. For about half a year, nothing happened. So in May 2006 I went to court to have this case resolved. When the company learned that I had gone to court against them, at first they tried to delay the case, and then they started harassing me. In June, I asked for sick leave so I could go to see a doctor in Nanjing. When I came back in July, I discovered that they hadn’t paid my salary for June. They even told me that I owed the company some 73 RMB. How was that possible? I had explicitly asked for sick leave, but they just changed it to unpaid vacation. That was more than I could bear. I went to the personnel department where they had changed my record. I asked them what was going on and why they had deducted my salary. But during our conversation, the personnel manager started to insult me, and when I talked back to him to defend myself he pushed me to the ground and kicked me with his foot.
This happened right inside the Chaoba office building in front of many other people. I was completely despaired and didn’t know what to do. Later, together with two of my colleagues, we called the police and even went to the police station because at first they didn’t send anyone after we called. At the police station I told the officers that someone had beaten me. I had pictures and evidence, but they didn’t pay any attention. They didn’t put it on record, they didn’t do anything. All they told me was to go to the hospital to see a doctor. I went to the complaint office and even to the mayor’s office. When the mayor showed up at the police station, they called an ambulance to take me to the hospital. But that was all they did. I had to pay all the medical expenses myself; the company didn’t give me back one cent. That was how they treated us. It was really outrageous.
Then we tried to get legal help and even contacted the press. Towards the end of 2007, my two colleagues and I arranged an interview with the Wall Street Journal in Guangzhou. We showed up at the hotel but we couldn’t get in and the journalists didn’t come out. In the end the police came and arrested us. The Chaoba Company has harassed so many workers and nobody ever intervened. We just wanted to tell our stories; we wanted to tell the media what was really going on, to make people aware of our problems. But the police took action against us very quickly. Now when it comes to our problems, nobody takes any action!
At the police station, they accused us of betraying our country. They said we were traitors because we wanted to tell the foreign media about domestic affairs. They even showed us some legal documents. But we didn’t want to betray our country! We just wanted to tell our stories. That has nothing to do with betraying or loving your country! What they did, harassing workers and not allowing them to speak, that’s what is harmful to our country. They make life impossible for us workers, for the masses. What benefits is the country supposed to have from that? Of course, the policemen said they were just doing their job. When they interrogated us, I felt they didn’t really know the details of our case. They just got the impression that this was an important case, so they treated us as if we were criminals. Then they found out that we were just three patients. We told them our stories and some of them were quite compassionate, but others still treated us very badly.
We were kept under arrest at the police station and interrogated for 13 hours, from noon until late at night. Our physical condition was quite bad already, and in the end we were completely exhausted. I felt I was about to collapse and asked them to send me to the hospital, but they refused. I felt their behaviour was completely inhuman.
Later, more and more workers found out that their kidneys, lungs and livers had already been damaged in varying degrees. But even then, nobody took any action. There was one lawsuit towards the end of 2006, which was about the medical rechecks. The law says that companies must send their workers for a medical examination once every year. In this case, the company had done the examinations but didn’t want to pay any treatment. The examinations showed that the workers had damaged kidneys, livers and lungs and that their blood was all poisoned, but they didn’t get any treatment. But if they didn’t get any treatment, why were they examined in the first place? It didn’t make any sense.
Now these workers are under observation and they are given so-called nutriments. Actually, it’s just ordinary milk. But in 2008, we had the milk melamine scandal. You can imagine what happened when those workers drank the contaminated milk. Actually the workers just wanted some complementary nutrition, it would have been better to simply give them some money so they could buy what they needed. Instead they were given milk, and then it turned out that the milk was contaminated. They stopped sending milk for some time, but when the scandal waned down they started sending it again. Many people were still concerned about drinking milk, but these workers received their milk every month.
They were also given some food supplements. That’s another thing I can’t understand. All the workers got the same food supplements, and in the same dosage. I think that’s ridiculous. Every worker’s physical condition is different, they have suffered different types of damage and it’s just impossible that everyone should need the same medicine and the same dosage, even if it’s only food supplements. It doesn’t make any sense. Some workers had adverse reactions after taking those supplements, they vomited and felt sick. But when they told the company about this, there was no reaction. This happened in April 2009. On April 14, we brought up this case in a letter to the government of Huizhou, but we still haven’t received an answer. I think they are again trying to delay the case. And in the medical rechecks, these problems are completely ignored.
Some workers, like Tan Ling, Gao Cailang and myself, have problems with our kidneys. But because our second examination had turned out “normal”, they simply ignored us afterwards. Every year in the medical rechecks, there is a group of workers whose results supposedly turn back to “normal”, and these workers are simply ignored afterwards. I think the company is just trying to get rid of their responsibility in this way. They tell workers that their results are “back to normal” so they don’t have to take care of them anymore. But that’s just playing tricks. And in this way they are ruining the workers’ lives.
Many workers had babies during those 10 years, and there were news reports that some of those babies were born with grey skin because their mothers had high levels of cadmium in their bodies. One of these women is called Tan Xiaoming, her baby was born with osteomalacia, which means his bones aren’t hard enough. He is three years old now but he can’t stand on his feet. When these children were examined, their cadmium levels were much, much higher than what is considered poisonous for children. But they weren’t given any treatment. Actually, their names were simply removed from the examination lists so they can’t be examined again. The factory says they are checking the workers regularly and taking responsibility for them. But that’s not true. All they do is have us take medical examinations every now and then. In the meantime, our physical condition is getting worse and worse, and we don’t get one cent of compensation.
There are only twenty workers whose condition was recognized as an occupational disease. They were taken care of by the company, but in a very inhuman way. They have been in hospital for five years and the company has treated them very badly. The company claimed that these workers were receiving some treatment, but they completely deprived them of their freedom. I was in the hospital in October 2007 and there I talked to some of them. They weren’t allowed to go home to see their families for the spring festival. They had to stay at the hospital. The spring festival is a very important traditional celebration in China, no matter how far away people live from their families, they always go home to see them. In 2007, 2008 and 2009 I also stayed at the hospital for the spring festival, because of my disease. Most other patients tried to go home for as long as they could, and the hospital allowed them to go. Only if you had a very bad disease, if it would have been dangerous for you to leave the hospital, only then the doctors would suggest that you should stay.
But the company had no good reason to keep those workers in the hospital during the spring festival. The whole country is on holiday for three days, so why couldn’t they allow those workers to go home and see their families? They pretended it was for medical reasons and for the workers’ own good, but actually it was something really inhuman. They just dressed it up as a good deed.
For every group of workers, the company and the government have a different way of avoiding their responsibilities. One for those who are in hospital, one for those who haven’t been to the hospital, one for those who have gotten a medical examination, one for those who haven’t been examined. The management doesn’t want to spend any money; the government doesn’t want to take responsibility. They are only worried about their own power and politics. We workers are left to ourselves, knowing that we will probably die soon. So the only thing we can do is tell our story. If we tell our story, then maybe some other workers who are in a similar situation will start paying attention to their working environment. When you start working at a factory, the first thing you need to know is whether it has a safe working environment. You need to know if there are any harmful substances like cadmium. I know it’s difficult for many people to avoid such working conditions; many just have to accept them because of the pressures of life. But I still think it’s important for us to speak out.