Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Occupational Diseases and Migrant Workers' Compensation Claiming in China: An Unheeded Social Risk in Asymmetrical Employment Relationships

Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Occupational Diseases and Migrant Workers' Compensation Claiming in China: An Unheeded Social Risk in Asymmetrical Employment Relationships

Article excerpt


Due to rapid industrialisation, China's GDP has grown by 10% annually on average since the country's reform and opening up in 1978. One of the key drivers of China's new industrial revolution is its cheap labour force, consisting of 274 million migrant workers, largely subsistence farmers who have migrated from rural areas to urban centres seeking employment (National Bureau of Statistics [NBS], 2015). A large percentage of these migrant workers are temporary workers employed informally in the private sector, engaged in so-called three D jobs: 'dirty, dangerous, and demeaning' (Roberts, 2001). According to the most recent official figures, an estimated 200 million Chinese labourers work in hazardous environments, and the total number of officially reported cases of occupational diseases1 in China reached 749,970 by 2010. This total number continues to increase every year, for example, 27,240 new cases of occupational disease were confirmed in 2010 (All-China Federation of Trade Unions [ACFTU], 2011). Migrant workers account for an estimated 90% of the total number of victims of occupational diseases in China (Ministry of Health, 2011).

With the large and growing number of people suffering from occupational diseases in China, it is important to better understand the influences that explain this phenomenon and the social responses to it. However, existing research on this topic has been conducted primarily from a medical and epidemiological angle, failing to explore the issue from a sociological perspective (Chen, 2003; Su, 2003; Wang & Christiani, 2003; Zhang, Wang, & Li, 2010). Furthermore, compared to workers ' compensation claiming for workrelated accidents (Guthrie & Barns, 2008; Parrish & Schofield, 2005; Pollard, 2014), the process and outcome of workers' compensation claiming for occupational diseases are still under-researched. This article aims to address this gap by exploring migrant workers' responses to occupational disease compensation, which is significant not only because compensation is regarded as the most urgent matter for victims and their families (Ding, Schenk, & Hansson, 2013), but also because it reveals challenges to the effectiveness of occupational laws in China.

Through empirical research in China, we found that migrant workers must pursue informal channels to cope with occupational diseases despite existing laws. Conventionally, the enactment of labour protection laws aims to diminish the power imbalance between labour and capital and protect the disadvantaged from economic loss, such as when workers have to exit the labour market due to diseases, disability, impediment, unemployment and so on. However, we argue that due to the long latency period and the fact that migrant workers mostly work in informal sectors, occupational diseases present a special type of social risk in a newly industrialised society like China. The pro-industry policies implemented by local officials disadvantage claimants' legal compensation and have widened the uneven power distribution between migrant workers and employers further. In the following section, the conceptual framework underpinning our examination of social risks and social protection is explained. The second section introduces the research methods. The third section presents the research findings, and includes three sub-sections: the first points out that migrant workers are most susceptible to occupational diseases in China. The second explains how the social protection for workers' occupational disease has been set up through an analysis of laws on occupational diseases in China. Based on empirical data, the third sub-sectionargues that despite existing laws, informal strategies are prevalent during migrant workers' compensation claiming process.

The conceptual framework: social risks and social protection

The concept of 'risk society', developed by sociologists Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens, reveals the structural drivers of social insecurity in modern society. …

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