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More Than Forty Thousand Injured Fingers

Stories behind the economic development in the Pearl River Delta area of Guangdong Province.

The Pearl River Delta is the pioneering area of China’s economic reform that started in the 1980s. It was the first area to reap the benefits of foreign investments and became the country’s manufacturing base and economic engine. For the millions of temporary workers who mostly come from the countryside and are the main contributors to the economic prosperity, however, the glittering neon lights and high-rise buildings are not part of their reality. Their best wish is very simple. At the end of the day, they hope that nothing has happened to them.

"Every time I operated the presser, I was afraid that something would happen to me. The big noise of the presser sometimes scares me," said Wang Fu, a 17-year-old worker who came to Guangdong Province from Henan Province to find work. In the afternoon of April 3, 2004, Wang Fu’s fear became true. His right palm got stuck in the presser, and all five fingers were cut off.

Wang recalled, "I screamed. The factory sent a security guard to escort me to the hospital. When we arrived at the hospital, the security guard didn’t want to go in. With excruciating pain, I had to walk to the doctor by myself. The factory manager told the doctor, "Don’t bother to re-connect the fingers; just wrap it up."

Wang had only joined the factory as a presser a little over a month earlier. The factory didn’t sign a contract with him, nor did it provide him with any safety training. Despite the manager’s remark, the doctor reconnected the four fingers that were still intact. However, Wang lost his thumb forever.

Wang said, "I heard that someone found my thumb, but the factory manager threw it away. Our manager is a tough guy. He has never paid any penalty for workplace accidents. In the same hospital, eight other injured coworkers were getting medical treatment. I heard from my coworkers that our boss is probably a Deputy to the People’s Congress. I’m scared. The factory didn’t give me a penny of food assistance. It didn’t send anyone to take care of me. My uncle had to spend time taking care of me, buying food for me with money he earned from selling recyclable items collected from the trash."

Zhang Hong, a 19-year-old boy from Hunan Province, is another example of the dark side of the economic boom. On September 9, 2003, he began working at a shoe factory in Huizhou City, Guangdong Province. The factory didn’t sign a contract with him. Nor did it provide any safety training. Assigned to operate pressers, Zhang had to work 11 hours a day, seven days a week. On September 29, the machine he was working on broke down and badly injured his right hand. Although he received medical care, his index and middle fingers could not function any more. The factory owed the hospital more than 4,000 yuan (about US$500).
Zhang Hong’s father appealed to the Department of Labor in Huizhou City. The City government promised to urge the factory to pay the bill owed to the hospital. Zhang’s fingers became inflamed and swollen; however, the factory made no move to pay the medical bill. Finally a staff member in the factory office told Zhang’s parents that Zhang was injured because he had dozed off during work, and that the factory wouldn’t bear any responsibilities. It would only help with half of the medical bill.

Such stories happen on a daily basis but are rarely reported to the public. Only the growing numbers of hand surgery hospitals, which have also prospered along with the area’s industrialization, are witness to the miseries of the workers.

Dr. Xie, from the Fangshu Spring Hospital, in Dongguan City was asked whether hand surgery in Guangdong Province was the most advanced in China. He said, "It is not the best in terms of medical technology. However, it is truly advanced in the nation in terms of clinical skills. The number of injuries is huge. Doctors have plenty of clinical experience. You can also go to Shunde and Shenzhen cities. The hand surgery business there is also booming. There are even hospitals that specialize in hand surgery."

An online search in Chinese for "broken fingers hospital" rendered more than 1,000 results. Most of them are in the Pearl River Delta area. The website of the Guangzhou Peace Hand Surgery Hospital boasts that the hospital has processed more than 6,000 cases since it was established. Its success rate for re-connecting fingers is 95.5 percent.

Hengsheng Hand Surgery Hospital was established in 1993. It was the first privately owned hospital at that time. The hospital declined to disclose how many patients it has treated; however, its online introduction for its chairman, Huang Weidong, says that Dr. Huang has performed more than 3,000 hand surgeries.

Shunde Peace Hand Surgery Hospital is renowned in the Pearl River Delta area. Only two years ago, the hospital, formerly called San Zhou Hand Surgery, was still housed in a shabby three-story office building. In 2004, it completed the construction of two high rises. A hand surgery doctor there said that he has treated more than 4,000 hand surgery cases in 10 years, almost a case a day.

Every town in Guangdong Province has a department of hand surgery in its hospital. Dr. Song, in the hand surgery department of a hospital, estimates the total number to be over 100. In areas other than Guangdong and Zhejiang provinces, the hand surgery department is usually combined with the orthopedics department. Those areas rarely see specialized hand surgery hospitals. According to Dr. Song, "The hand surgery hospitals here are created by the market demand. More than 10 years ago, a lot of people in the orthopedics department didn’t want to handle hand surgeries. It takes at least two to three hours to reconnect a finger. The hospitals didn’t have the manpower. Some people saw the market demand and opened hand surgery hospitals. They made a great fortune. Think about ittens of thousands of fingers each year with the average price of 5,000 yuan (US$610) per finger. There are many other hand injuries as well. Think about the earning potential!"
Starting in July 2003, Professor Xie Zexian, of the Guangdong Business School, and Professors Huang Qiaoyan and Zeng Feiyang, both of Zhongshan University Law School, conducted a survey on work injuries. They surveyed 582 patients who had suffered on-the-job injuries. The patients were from 39 hospitals and a career disease prevention hospital in the Pearl River Delta area. The geographic area included Shunde, Zhongshan, Dongguan, Huizhou, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen cities.

The survey showed that 71.8 percent of enterprises have had work injuries. Victims from rural areas, small towns, and urban areas constitute 70.2, 15.4, and 10 percent respectively. Most of the victims are young people. The average age is 26. The vast majority of the injured, 81.6 percent, are under 31 years old. The most common work injuries are machine cuts, 75.8 percent. The top area for injuries is fingers. The industries that see most of these injuries are hardware (32.3 percent), furniture (13.1 percent), electronics (8.1 percent), and construction (5.0 percent). Of the victims, 61.7 percent did not sign a contract with the factory. Only 11 percent of the enterprises have labor unions. Professor Zeng estimated that the number of broken fingers was over 40,000 per year.

Where have the victims gone? How are they able to survive now? The cell phone numbers listed on the survey forms are not working anymore. Student researchers at the Guangdong Business School did a one-time follow-up. They found that some victims had returned to their hometowns. Some had opened small stores, using the compensation they had been paid for their injuries. Some are still in Guangdong Province, waiting for a settlement in the lengthy legal process.

It is very costly for workers from rural areas to file a lawsuit in an urban area. A common work accident case normally takes 1,070 days to complete. Many people have to give up because of the time required and the high cost.

Zeng Feiyang said, "I want to build a monument to those injured on the job, right here at the Pearl River Delta area, where we see the most of them. We cannot let the poor workers bleed and cry at the same time." When asked why he hadn’t done so, he thought a moment and said, "This should be done by the government."