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Stifling in Jade Dust

Times Staff Writer

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.

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“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.”

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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 jewelry 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.

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“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 labor 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’ jewelry 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 jewelry supplies over the Internet.

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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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

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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 checkup 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.

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“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 Labor Dispute Arbitration Committee in Haifeng. His factory had moved there from nearby Huizhou and changed its name from Gaoya to Gaoyi.

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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 favor employers.

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“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.

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Just when things looked hopeless, the China Labor 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 jewelry 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.

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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.

The Labor 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 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.

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

The labor 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 jewelry workers,” said Han Dongfang, director of China Labor Bulletin.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“When I see people still working at jewelry 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.”


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