The Sudden Death of a Female Worker in China

(Southern Metropolis Daily)  The Sudden Death of a Female Worker.  By Zhou Jiong (周炯).  May 31, 2005.

[in translation]

"I'm very tired ..."  Late at night on May 30, a 35-year-old female named Gan Hongying who worked at a garment factory in the Haizhu district of Guangzhou city died in a rented apartment.  The doctor's note: Cause of death is sudden death.  Prior to this, from May 27 to May 30, the factory was in a rush to complete a job and Gan Hongying worked from morning past midnight every day.  During the four days, she worked 54 hours and 25 minutes, including 22 hours of overtime work.  When she was alive, she frequently mentioned that "I really want to catch a good sleep."  Gan Hongying used to be a female teacher in Sichuan, but came down south to work when the kindergarten was closed.

35-year-old Gan Hongying (originally named Feng Hongxia, but she later changed to her mother's last name) stopped breathing in the rented house.

It was 11:59pm on the night of May 30, one minute before the day of the Dragon Boat Festival.

Two and half hours ago, she spoke her last words to her sister Feng Yuzhu: "I'm very tired.  Give me the door key.  I will go and take a rest at your place."

At the Xinhai Hospital, the doctor wrote on the patient's record: The patient's "cause of death: sudden death."

At 930pm on May 30, the machine operator Gan Hongying asked for time off from the boss of the New Wave Star Garment Factory located in the Haizhu district.  She left by herself from her work station at which she had worked for more than 10 hours already.  She then went to rest at her sister Feng Yuzhu's home -- a two-square-meter rented apartment located at number 20, Lujiangxi Road, Haizhu district, Guangzhou city.  At the time, the Hubei co-worker Wang Liuqi who worked on the machine across from Gan Hongying recalled that she did not look well and was saying that she was dizzy with a headache.  "I can't keep up any longer.  I have to rest."  Feng Yuzhu was busy working herself and comforted her: "Tomorrow is the day of Dragon Boat Festival.  You can rest a bit."  Gan Hongying who used to be a teacher could only shake her head feebly and said: "As long as I can rest, I want to take one long good sleep."

Feng Yuzhu's son Peng Qin returned home at 11pm.  "The door was open and the light was on," and his aunt was on the bed leaning motionless against the wall.  Peng Qin called her a few times and thought that something was amiss.  He went and checked her breathing.  "There was barely any breathing."  Peng Qin rushed towards the factory 400 meters away.  The Sichuan compatriot Lin Xingwen living next door might be the last person to have spoken to Gan Hongying.  Lin Xingwen recalled that at around 9:40pm, Gan Hongying came to his house to look for Peng Qin: "Is my nephew here?"  Peng Qin often comes to Lin Xingwen's place to watch television in the evening, although not on this particular night.  "She looked very haggard.  I commented to her about it.  She said that she was very dizzy and tired and she was going to get some sleep."  

Prior to that, after Gan Hongying got out of the factory at 9:30pm, she called her husband at home from the public telephone booth for the last time in her life.  Gan Hongying's husband Lin Kejun remembered that his wife's first words were: "I just left work.  I have not even finished my work."  Gan Hongying said that she was very tired, "and I am shivering with cold."  Lin Kejun told his wife to get some rest immediately.  The unusual thing was that just before the conversation was over, Gan Hongying suddenly told her husband to take care of their two young children.

At 11:10pm, the New Wave Star Garment Factory 400 meters from the rented house was still bustling in activities.  More than 100 workers were working overtime, and the blackboard on the side of the factory listed the three products that had to be delivered that day: "Must be delivered tonight."  Peng Qin ran to the floor area on the third floor.  The security guard stopped him: "Why are you doing here?  You can enter after they finish working."  Peng Qin looked at the time: 11:15pm, still 45 minutes away from the stopping time.  Peng Qin was anxious and starting yelling at the security guard: "Let me in immediately.  If something happens to my aunt, you people will be responsible!"  After some jostling, the boss Feng Yadong who was supervising on the floor heard the commotion.  Feng Yadong told the reporter: "He was quarreling with the security guard at the entrance.  Once I found out what was going on, I told the security guard to fetch the people."

Feng Yuzhu was working at the number two machine, and someone told her to stop: "Your younger sister is dying.  You better go quickly!"  Feng Yuzhu said that her mind just went "zap!" and she began running home with her son.  Feng Yuzhu dialed 120 and then called her brother-in-law: "Hongying is dying."  Eyewitnesses said that Gan Hongying was motionless on the bed and "barely breathing."  The ambulance from Xinhai Hospital arrived quickly and a Jiangxi co-worker picked Hongying up and walked downstairs.  The doctor saw that Gan Hongying was in critical condition and ordered them to stop at the stair corner of the second floor for immediate treatment.  But there was not enough space in the narrow stairway.  The corridor on the second floor was pitch dark.  They found an empty apartment on the second floor, but there was no light inside.  After many digressions, Gan Hongying was brought back to the room on the third floor.  By that time, she had stopped breathing.  The patient record at Xinhai Hospital read: "Cause of death: Sudden death.  Time of death: 23:59 May 30, 2006."

Gan Hongying was from Sichuan.  Her parents were peasants.  She was the youngest of three sisters.  At 17, she graduated from the Normal School and then worked as an elementary school teacher.  Later on, she started her own kindergarten.  Last October, due to lack of capital and difficulty in recruiting students, the kindergarten was closed.  Soon afterwards, Gan Hongying went away to work: "Earn some money, so that the children can have better schooling; accumulate some capital, so that the kindergarten can be started again."  Gan Hongying let her husband, who worked at the county city animal feed store, to take care of their 11-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son and went by herself down south to work.  She worked two months as a service worker at a Guangzhou restaurant.  She returned home for the Chinese New Year and then she went back to Guangzhou again.  Her sister Feng Yuzhu said that Gan Hongying contacted many smaller elementary schools in the Haizhu district, and one school promised that she could start working there when the new school year starts.  For the several months in between, her sister introduced her to work at the machine shop in the New Wave Star factory.  The family members displayed Gan Hongying's elementary school Category Two teacher's qualification certificate, her graduation certificate, her health certificate and other job documents to the reporter and then they broke down and cried.

Lin Kejun recalled that one month after joining the garment factory, his wife began to complain by telephone about the tiring overtime work at the factory.  Lin Kejun tried to get his daughter to ask mom to come home, but Gan Hongying refused.  She told her daughter to study hard.  "It is not easy to earn money on the outside, so you better study well."  In March and April, Gan Hongying received 1,700 yuan in wages after room and food were deducted and she sent 1,100 yuan home in two installments.  She also sent the children snacks and clothed dolls several times.  The reporter found a bank passbook among Gan Hongying's possessions with not much in the account.  According to her roommates, "She was very frugal."  In their impression, Gan Hongying had treated her roommate only once, but that was with one yuan for some pears that "tasted sour."  The other deep impression that the co-workers got was that the factory loudspeaker system was playing some popular songs one day and Gan Hongying was singing along with them one by one.  The co-workers were delightfully surprised at "how well she sang."

On early morning of May 31, the reporter went to the factory dormitory at number 40 Lujiangxi road.  The workers from more than 10 garment factories around Lujiangxi road sleep here.  There was filthy water all around and the stench was disgusting.  We followed the long and dark staircase up.  After some twists and turns, we arrived at the room of Gan Hongying.  The room was probably proximate to a waste water ditch, so the stench was particularly strong.  The room was filthy, without even a single light.  The roommates recalled that because they worked overtime so often, they were usually very tired when they came back.  Since Gan Hongying used to work as a teacher, she probably had never worked so hard in her life.  Therefore, her fatigue was particularly obvious.  15-year-old female worker Xiao Xia slept on the next bed to Gan Hongying, and she said that Gan often got colds: "She said that she only wanted to rest well and get a good sleep."

At 4:30am in the morning on May 31, the space in front of New Wave Star factory was empty.  When the woman guarding the front door said "We just finished working," the accompanying factory person gave her a look to stop her from saying anything further.  At the end of the factory line where Gan Hongying worked, there was still a whole basket full of unfinished materials.  Several workers told the reporter privately that the workers at this factory usually sign in at 9am, pause at 11:30am, and return to work from 12:30pm until 5:30pm.  Then they go into overtime from 6:30pm onward and usually end at midnight.

The workers say that they are fined 20 yuan if they show up late.  If there is a rush job, "they get off whenever the work is done,:  Several workers said the factory locks the gate so that the workers can only leave when they finish.  If they do not finish, the workers will have to pay for the unfinished products.  "In order to make money and not get penalized, we have to keep working hard."

From the factory punch card records and the statements from the workers, the reporter was able to recreate the working condition of Gan Hongying on the days before her death.  On May 29, she worked from 9am to 2am for 15 hours of work (minus two hours for meals); on May 28, she worked from 9am to 1:45am, for 14:45 working hours;  on May 27, she worked from 9am to 1:20am, for 14:20 working hours.  Over those three days, if we count a regular working day of 8 hours, then she worked more than 20 hours in overtime.  According to the workers, as a new worker who did not know her job, Gan Hongying basically did not rest too much during the meal hours.  "From 8am in the morning, she had to do her laundry and clean-up."  According to information, the garment workers in the Luxiang area mostly work under the same circumstances as Gan Hongying.

On the afternoon of May 31, Lin Kejun arrived from Sichuan by airplane.  The total possessions of Gan Hongying consisted of a borrowed and half-read copy of "How Is Steel Refined," a copy of "Treatment of Children Disease and Accidental Injuries" from home plus a few pieces of clothing.  Looking at the clothes that his wife left, the husband who had not eaten for one day and one night just kept puffing at his cigarette.

The Guangdong province Department of Labor and Department of Social Security had issued the "Notice on the problems of strictly enforcing overtime systems" and specifically stated if overtime work is necessary due to extraordinary circumstances, it shall not be more than 3 hours per day and not more than 36 hours per month as long as the physical well-being of the laborers is being protected.

The Guangdong province department also investigated the situation: 92% of the enterprises in the Pearl River delta require overtime to various degrees; about 70% of the enterprises require more than 10 hours per week, with some enterprises requiring more than 28 hours per week.

According to an expert who wishes to be anonymous, the Pearl River delta enterprises derive their profits from large numbers of lowly paid laborers working very hard.  As the workers are in a disadvantaged and vulnerable position, they were often forced to work overtime for long periods of time in order to earn money and long-term employment opportunities.

Here are the details of the last four days of the female worker Gan Hongying who died suddenly:

May 27: 9am in the morning to 1:20am the next morning (with two hours of meal time) - 14:20 hours of work

May 28: 9am in the morning to 1:45am the next morning (with two hours of meal time) - 14:45 hours of work

May 29: 9am in the morning to 2:00am the next morning (with two hours of meal time) - 15:00 hours of work

May 30: 9am in the morning to 9:20pm in the evening (with two hours of meal time) - 10:20 hours of work.

May 30: 9:20pm.  Gan Hongying said that she cannot "keep it up anymore" and asked the boss for time off.

May 30: 9:30pm.  Gan Hongying called her husband from a street telephone booth.  She said that she was cold and tired.  She told her husband to take care of their children.

May 30: 11:00pm.  The nephew came home and saw her on the bed leaning against the wall.  She was motionless and barely breathing.  He immediately ran to the factory to tell his mother Feng Yuzhu, who called 120.  The ambulance arrived quickly.

May 30: 11:59pm.  Gan Hongying stopped breathing in the rented apartment.