(Updates with additional comment from Foxconn in para 13)
By Tan Ee Lyn
HONG KONG, Oct 11 (Reuters) - Apple Inc's largestcontract manufacturer has been pushing for a Chinese worker leftbrain-damaged in a factory accident to be removed from hospitalin a case that throws a harsh new spotlight on labour rights inChina.
Zhang Tingzhen, 26, an employee of Taiwan firm Foxconn, hadnearly half his brain surgically removed after surviving anelectric shock at a plant in southern China a year ago. Heremains in hospital under close observation by doctors, unableto speak or walk properly.
However, Foxconn, which is paying Zhang's hospital bills,has been sending telephone text messages to his family sinceJuly, demanding they remove him from hospital and threatening tocut off funding for his treatment - a move the firm says wouldbe justified under Chinese labour law.
Foxconn confirmed it had sent the messages, saying thatunder Chinese law the worker must submit himself to a disabilityassessment - a process that in Zhang's case would require him tobe discharged from the Shenzhen hospital and travel 70 km (43miles) to Huizhou, where he was first hired by Foxconn.
The firm said in response to emailed questions that it wouldbe prepared to return Zhang to the Shenzhen hospital after theassessment, though his father said Zhang was unfit to travel andthat doctors felt he remained at risk of a brain haemorrhage.
The case has raised fresh questions over the labour recordof Foxconn, one of the biggest and most high-profile privateemployers in China, after a series of well-publicised suicidesamong its army of around a million workers and recent outburstsof labour unrest.
<^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ A Foxconn worker's tragedy: ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^>
It has angered labour activists who say Zhang's plight alsohighlights China's patchy and sometimes precarious welfaresystem for workers seriously injured in industrial accidents -and point out that there are many workers worse off than Zhang.
"They kept sending me SMSs every day to get my son out ofhospital and to appear before an injury assessment body or theywill stop paying all expenses, including his medical fees andour living expenses," said Zhang's father, Zhang Guangde.
"You cannot imagine the suffering they put me through, how Ihad to fight every inch of the way just to get money so we cantake care of our son," he added, speaking at his son's bedsideat the Number 2 People's Hospital in Shenzhen.
Zhang was repairing a spotlight on an external wall at aFoxconn factory in Shenzhen, bordering Hong Kong, when hereceived an electric shock and fell four metres (12 feet) to theground. He has since undergone five operations, has lost hismemory, is incontinent and requires careful, regular monitoring.
'ROBBED OF DIGNITY'
Workers who are disabled in workplace accidents and coveredby insurance are eligible for compensation payouts, once theirdisability is assessed and graded by a panel of medical experts.The assessment is done after medical treatment is finished.
Foxconn sent the text messages, and according to Zhang'sfather at one point briefly halted payments to the family,despite a provincial law stipulating that injured workers canremain in treatment for up to two years before they must beassessed for disability compensation.
The company, however, denied that it delayed or stoppedpayments, saying it paid them on time.
Zhang, whose case was alerted to Reuters by labouractivists, has been in hospital since October 2011.
Doctors at the Number 2 People's Hospital declined tocomment for this article, but Zhang's father, 50, said they hadnot indicated that he could be discharged and had said theyneeded to keep his son under observation after implanting a tubein his body to drain fluid from his brain cavity to his bladder.
"The doctor told me they needed to monitor his condition andthat for such serious injuries, a person was allowed to betreated in hospital for up to two years. After that, assessorscan order treatment to be prolonged," the father said.
Labour activists in China say Zhang is just one of manythousands of Chinese workers who are left permanently disabledor chronically ill by workplace accidents, at the mercy of asystem that often requires them and their families to fightdegrading battles for treatment funding and compensation.
"China now has laws specifying the types of compensationthat are due to workers. But in many serious industrialaccidents, companies still put workers or their families througha lot of suffering just to get what is due to them," said ChoiSuet-wah of the Chinese Working Women Network in Hong Kong.
"They are robbed of their dignity," said Choi, who hasextensive experience working with migrant workers in China.
Zhang is actually one of the lucky ones, social workers say,pointing out that Foxconn has at least been paying his hospitalbills and the living expenses of his family, which has moved toShenzhen from central China to be with him.
They estimate that at least four out of 10 Chinese workersare not covered by any kind of insurance and are left to fendfor themselves when seriously injured in the workplace - despitelaws requiring all employers to insure their workers.
"This is just one of many, many industrial accidents inChina. And you almost certainly never get what you are entitledto, especially in serious cases," Choi said.
Foxconn says it is insured against workplace accidents,which means its insurer would meet the cost of a compensationpayment once Zhang's disability is finally assessed.
But compensation in China can vary depending on the city inwhich a worker's disability is assessed - and this, according toZhang's family, is why Foxconn wants him to travel to Huizhouand refuses to have him assessed in Shenzhen.
Labour activists say wages and compensation levels are allsubstantially lower in Huizhou than in Shenzhen, one of the mostexpensive cities in China.
When asked why Zhang could not be assessed in Shenzhen,Foxconn said the law required him to go to Huizhou because hehad signed his employment contract there. It added that it wasprepared to send him back to the hospital in Shenzhen if theassessors determined that he required more medical attention.
In hospital, Zhang walks unsteadily, holding on to the bedframes of other patients in his shared room and, with a smile,sits down next to his father whose face tightens with emotion.
"He calls me 'mother' and calls my wife 'father'. He canonly mimic words you ask him to say, it is meaningless," theelder Zhang said later, holding a jar containing large fragmentsof his son's cranium. Doctors replaced a portion of Zhang'sskull with synthetic bone.
He said that despite Foxconn's funding - a monthly allowanceof 11,000 yuan ($1,800) plus treatment costs - the family hadracked up 200,000 yuan ($31,800) in debt to pay for medicinesnot provided by the hospital and other expenses.
Back home in central Henan province, the family was buildinga house for Zhang to live in after his impending marriage whenhe was injured.
"We were building a three-storey house," the elder Zhangsaid. "The project has since been abandoned and all the buildingmaterials we bought have been washed away by rain. But theseworkers still have to be paid. My whole life is over."
($1 = 6.2878 yuan)
(Additional reporting by China bureau; Editing by Mark Bendeichand Nick Macfie)
Keywords: CHINA FOXCONN/WORKER