In a small village in China’s Hubei Province, 55-year old Yang Chunchi seems no different than her neighbors. But inside, she harbors a secret – for years she has suffered from pneumoconiosis, an occupational lung disease, just like her husband. While male workers are increasingly recognized as victims of China’s epidemic of dust-induced illness, women like Yang often remain hidden and stigmatized.
Yang’s story highlights the burden of occupational diseases borne by women assisting China’s migrant workforce. Rarely handling machinery directly, these “workers in the shadows” are exposed to the same dangerous dust while informally assisting husbands on job sites. Whether carrying stone slabs, sweeping up, or cleaning finished houses coated in hazardous chemicals, women perform jobs that are sometimes dangerous.
And when illness eventually manifests, these women lack recognition and support as victims of occupational diseases. Deeply rooted stigma around disability and disease compound gender biases in rural villages. Seeking diagnosis and appearing unable to adequately provide are considered embarrassing failures.
Education, outreach, and social support systems cater almost exclusively to male migrant workers. Treated as auxiliary helpers, the risks faced by women working in the shadows have remained largely invisible.
But Yang’s story provides a glimpse into a broader phenomenon. Occupational health researchers estimate millions of informal women workers in industries like mining, textiles, and waste recycling suffer exposure-related risks while assisting primary male earners. And industrializing areas in China now drive an outright crisis of occupational disease.
In regions like Yang’s village, researchers suggest more than 30 percent of wives that assist their husbands in the workplace develop symptoms of lung disease versus general rates of around 5 percent. Across other sectors like welding and spray painting, studies reveal assistant women workers suffering from rates of exposure two to three times higher than male workers directly handling materials.
Yang’s small village may contain many more undiagnosed cases like hers. But improving identification and support depends on increasing awareness while dismantling barriers caused by stigma.
Providing medical outreach and social assistance tailored to women, boosting educational campaigns focused on auxiliary exposure, explicitly incorporating women workers into occupational health initiatives – these efforts can help bring this hidden epidemic to light.
For Yang Chunchi and millions more like her now developing chronic illness after years assisting their husbands, emerging from the shadows is essential not only for medical care but also for basic recognition and compassion. The spouses who stand beside dusty trade workers represent an invisible workforce requiring visibility and support.