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Notebook

NCLB—Let's Get It Right

The majority of AFT teachers say they want the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) fixed—not eliminated. That's why the AFT recently launched a nationwide campaign to educate the public and elected officials about details of the law that hinder school improvement. The campaign, "NCLB—Let's Get It Right," features print and radio ads in English and Spanish. One of the AFT's top priorities is fixing the law's definition of adequate yearly progress (AYP), the flawed accountability provision that focuses on students' current test scores instead of the gains that students are making. Other top priorities of the campaign include: 1) improving the provisions that require all teachers to be highly qualified, including by establishing induction and professional development programs; 2) revising NCLB's sanctions to emphasize research-based interventions that increase student achievement; and, 3) securing the funding that was promised for implementing NCLB.


Dying Workers in China

The AFT maintains close ties to union activists in Hong Kong and mainland China like Szeto Wah, the first president of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union, and Han Dongfang, the founder of the China Labour Bulletin who was imprisoned for trying to start an independent union in China. The AFT recently sent a delegation, led by Secretary-Treasurer Nat LaCour, to find out how workers are faring in Hong Kong and China. While workers' rights to representation seem relatively secure in Hong Kong at the moment (for details, see "Hong Kong Teachers Union Fights to Maintain Basic Freedoms" below), the situation in mainland China is, in a word, deadly.

Dying of Silicosis

Together, the China Labour Bulletin, the Hong Kong teachers' union, and the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee (a watchdog group) arranged for AFT's delegation to meet six migrant workers in Huizhou, China, who are dying of silicosis. This terrible respiratory disease results from inhaling silica dust, which then inflames and scars lung tissue. In acute cases, the lungs may also fill with fluid. These workers contracted the disease by

grinding gemstones in unventilated factories run by Lucky Gems and Jewelry, Ko Ngar Gems, Perfect Gem and Pearl Manufacturing, and Art's King Gems. By Chinese law, factories must protect their workers from this type of occupational hazard and provide compensation when injuries occur. But government officials, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (the government-controlled "union"), and the courts ignore the law—and so do the major brands, like Liz Claiborne, that buy the products. Because the factories operate with impunity, these workers have been fired and are struggling to pay their medical expenses with little or no compensation from their former employers. The most grievously ill worker, Deng Wenping, had to sell his home to pay his doctor's bills. (See "The Family Left Behind" below to learn more.)

These workers are not unique. Roughly 200 million migrant workers have flooded China's free enterprise zones, but no one in the government or "union" seems concerned with their safety. They live chaotic, unstable lives in over-crowded dormitories, sharing small beds and tiny rooms—often right above the factory floor. With luck, they may save a portion of their wages to send home and may get to visit their families a few days each year. According to the Solidarity Center's report, Justice for All: The Struggle for Worker Rights in China, "In 2002, workplace accidents reportedly caused 140,000 deaths in China, 250,000 workers lost body parts and suffered other injuries, and nearly 400,000 workers died from the cumulative effects of workplace illness."


Hong Kong Teachers Union Fights to Maintain Basic Freedoms

The delegation's findings in Hong Kong were heartening; the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union (HKPTU) is strong. Even though it has not won collective bargaining rights, it has 81,000 members and offers benefits ranging from medical clinics to professional development. As importantly, its members understand that the union is crucial to making the People's Republic of China live up to the "one country, two systems" promise that it made when the governance of Hong Kong was transferred from British colonial rule in 1997. (Hong Kong is now a "Special Administrative Region" of China that is supposed to maintain its autonomy until 2047.) Many teachers have joined HKPTU mainly because they support the democracy movement that is at the heart of the union's activities. In fact, the union's pro-democracy activities are so central to its work that Cheung Man Kwong, HKPTU's president, has also been elected to Hong Kong's Legislative Council.

But all is not well. The union, along with other pro-democracy organizations, must continuously fight proposals from the Communist party to limit people's rights. For example, in July 2003 the Communist party tried to force an "anti-subversion" law on Hong Kong that would have greatly diminished freedom of association. This law would have allowed the mainland leaders to take legal actions against their critics in Hong Kong, especially pro-democracy groups like HKPTU. With two massive rallies in the past couple of years, the pro-democracy forces have prevented the anti-subversion law from being passed, but HKPTU's leaders expect that it will be put forth again. Ultimately, the mainland's goal is to reduce Hong Kong's unions to an arm of government—just like the mainland's All China Federation of Trade Unions, which "represents" workers by following orders from the Communist party.


The Family Left Behind: A Personal Account

My name is Tang Manzhen and my husband is Deng Wenping. We are both 34 years old. I came to Huizhou to work in January 1998, a few months after my husband started work in the stone-cutting section of the Perfect Gem and Pearl Manufacturing Company. Back home we were farmers, working day and night to make ends meet. We thought that factory work in Guangdong sounded promising, so we left our 8-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son with their grandparents in a village in Sichuan to come here.

I started working in the perforation (gem drilling) section of the same factory. My husband earned 1,000 Yuan a month1 and my wages were on a piece-rate basis. I worked from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. or even later, with one day off a month, for 900 Yuan a month. Chinese New Year was the time we looked forward to most, when we could go home for a few days and see our children and parents. Our wages meant we could send our daughter to school and have a house built in our hometown, where we hoped to return one day. But in late 2000, everything went wrong.

After the factory's annual medical test, my husband was notified that he had contracted tuberculosis. We were suspicious because tuberculosis is infectious and if he had it, why hadn't I caught it? So, together with five other colleagues, my husband went for an examination at another hospital.

It turned out that all of them were suffering from silicosis, and my husband's condition was diagnosed as being at Stage II of the illness. On learning of this, the factory fired them all on January 5, 2001, just three days after they came out of hospital.

On the morning of January 8, 2001, I received notification from the factory that it was "inappropriate for me to work in this factory anymore," and the security guards forced me to pack and leave immediately.

I wanted to look for another job so that I could support my children and pay for my husband's medical treatment, but he was so sick that I could not leave him alone at home. I needed to cook for him, bathe him, and take him to the clinic. Now, he can't even dress himself, so I have to do everything for him.

My husband received 90,000 Yuan compensation from the factory, but our lives have been ruined.2 We have spent all the compensation money and our own savings and even sold our house to pay for his medical treatment. Four years on, we are now heavily in debt, so we are currently trying to sue the company in court to get higher compensation.

His condition is now at Stage III, the last stage of this incurable illness. He now needs oxygen therapy once every two days to combat his breathing difficulties. We cannot afford to go to better hospitals, so we go to small clinics. But still, it costs 140 Yuan each time.

Since he contracted silicosis, I haven't had a good night's sleep. I am worried all the time. How long does he have left? How can his suffering be reduced? How are my children? What shall I do when he is gone? What if we lose the court case? How can we repay our debts? These thoughts keep me awake during the endless nights, accompanied by his coughing and murmuring.

My children are now 14 and 8. The younger one has never been to school and the elder one had to quit because we couldn't afford her tuition fees. I don't want to cry in front of my husband because he suffers enough, but when I call my children, I cannot hold back my tears anymore. They always ask when they can return to school. Kids in the village laugh at them, saying that they have parents working in Guangdong but cannot send them to school. It breaks my heart when I hear those stories.

You know, I have not seen my children for more than three years. A return ticket to Sichuan costs 600 Yuan and I can't afford it. "How tall are my children? Have they put on weight? Are they naughty?" I always ask my friends when they return after Chinese New Year.

We are now living on the charity of good-hearted people. A fellow villager, who works in Huizhou, lets us have a spare room, and I have borrowed money from friends and relatives to treat my husband.3 But it is getting more difficult because they know he will not recover, so they probably will not be repaid. I feel extremely bad about this.

My husband is dying, but still I don't want to give up. All I wish now is that the factory will pay for his medical expenses and give us some compensation so that he can live longer and my children can return to school.


This account is from the China Labour Bulletin, which interviewed Tang Manzhen in March 2005. The original, slightly longer article, is online at www.china-labour.org.hk/en/node/8492.

Endnotes

1. There are about 8.3 Yuan to the U.S. dollar.

2. The initial offer of compensation was 100,000 Yuan, but Mr. Deng said he had been required by the factory management to pay them a 10 percent commission for handling the case. The handling fee was off the record.

3. The place Mr. and Mrs. Deng live looks like an abandoned house from the outside. On the day of this interview, it was drizzling, and their room was dark and damp. She has to gather wood for cooking and has no access to clean water in their home.