Fatal 24-hour shift at microwave plant highlights plight of migrants working long hours, under false names, for low pay. When Zhang Guo Hua dropped dead in Hartlepool, after stamping the word Samsung on microwave ovens for 24 hours on end, it turned out to be in no one's interests to make too much of a fuss - not his employer, nor his workmates, nor the gangmaster who brought him there, nor even his widow back home.
News was anyway unlikely to spread fast, as Mr Zhang's friends spoke no English. The bereaved Mrs Zhang did not understand the death certificate when it was eventually sent to her back in China. The body was soon cremated, without the benefit of an inquest.
A Guardian investigation has discovered that the dead man was one of a hidden army of workers from northern China, many of them without papers, toiling under conditions that few Britons would tolerate.
They live a grim, third world way of life in Peter Mandelson's north-east constituency, where Mr Zhang's life was to end.
Rumours about his death began slowly to circulate this year in London's Chinatown, where the world of northern Mandarin language speakers is often impenetrable even to the Cantonese from Hong Kong who make up the majority of Britain's residents. The northern Chinese are probably among the most isolated and ruthlessly exploited.
But eventually the Guardian managed to trace someone who had worked with Mr Zhang on Teesside. Tang Guo was on a short break from his gruelling job in a west London Chinese restaurant. Like others we talked to, he asked us not to use his real name, afraid equally of the immigration authorities and the "enforcers" from the Chinese gangs.
Mr Tang was young, fit and desperate for money so he could pay his debts and send the balance home. He flew to London from Beijing as a visitor, overstayed, and he and his permitless friends and their wives have since been through the usual list of trades - cutting salads for Tesco suppliers in Sussex, fish processing in Scotland, packing flowers in Norfolk.
But the very worst job, he said, was the one he shared with Mr Zhang, working night shifts along with up to 80 other Chinese, in the cluster of plastics plants in Teesside which feed the Korean-owned Samsung factory there with components.
He said they were recruited by a man called Sung Chul Lim, who has been granted asylum and says he is a North Korean refugee. He runs a firm called Thames Oriental Manpower Management, from small offices in the suburb of New Malden, south-west London, set up near Samsung's UK corporate headquarters.
"He charged us Â£100, got us the jobs, provided papers and gave us train tickets to Hartlepool," said Tang Guo. "We had false identities, using photocopied work permits." He claims Mr Lim arranged the work permits.
The heavily-built Mr Lim agrees that he had photocopied work-permits, but he said this was innocently done at the workers' request, and he had not known they would be misused.
Mr Zhang, from Heilongjiang, in north-eastern China, and older than many of his workmates at 40, lost his own identity and became Li Ming. "He never told me he had high blood pressure," said Mr Lim.
Mr Zhang - or "Li Ming" - found himself, along with almost 30 other single men, living three to a room and sleeping on metal bunks in premises on the Stockton Road provided by the factory.
At the shabby former guest house last week, little seemed to have changed. After 8am, when the night shift ends, many of the 28 occupants were crowded in, hoovering their tiny sleeping space or trying to cook breakfast. "It's like being in the army," one said.
Mr Zhang slept half a mile from the Woo One works, a modern group of sheds on the Sovereign business park on Hartlepool's outskirts. There he was to spend virtually the whole of the rest of his life.
Woo One UK is a separate, Korean-owned company, one of several feeder firms which moved in to mould plastic parts for the Samsung factory nearby.
When Samsung's global electronics operations came to Teesside, there was jubilation in the British government. The Queen opened Samsung's plant in 1996, and it was hoped it would bring prosperity to the north-east's unemployed.
But in fact, as Keith Boynton, Woo One's English managing director said, the plant has been unable to find enough local labour. The pay for English workers, currently the legal minimum of Â£4.50 an hour for a 42-hour week, is too poor.
Chinese migrants like Mr Zhang are, however, desperate to work harder than the British, for even less.
"The minimum week was 72 hours," Tang Guo said, "and the minimum length of shift was 12 hours. In busy periods we would frequently work 16-hour shifts, and sometimes 24 hours on end."
Mr Boynton agrees the firm does not require these hours of its English employees: "I don't know how many hours they [the Chinese] work. One of our colleagues looked after the paperwork." He said Mr Lim was entirely responsible for the Chinese workers, who were technically employed by his agency, not by the company.
Mr Lim had also recently taken over responsibility for the Stockton Road hostel, Mr Boynton said. "He submits a claim. We pay him direct, the minimum wage per worker plus a management fee. He houses the workers and feeds them. We provide space at the factory for his Chinese cook. What he pays the workers is up to him."
Tang Guo told us that when he and Mr Zhang were workmates in 2001, they would work more than 100 hours in a busy week. They did not have contracts of employment or sick pay, and typically, he said, would be given Â£670 a month in their hand. Wage rates do not appear to have improved much since then. At the Stockton Road hostel last week, we talked to one factory hand. "I work 16 hours a day, seven days a week" he said. "I get Â£250 a week."
One explanation for the gap between what the company says it hands over to Mr Lim and what Mr Lim hands over to the workers, is that his agency makes deductions.
Mr Lim says he charges the workers Â£60 a month for their food, and another Â£120 a month for their spartan accommodation and the use of a van to ferry them to the factory. On his calculations, his workers are thus receiving Â£2.48 an hour, all found. As to the long hours, Mr Lim said: "The workers wanted to work".
He denied that any shifts were rostered for longer than 16 hours, but said occasionally workers swapped shifts with each other, and worked two 12-hour shifts back to back in order to get a day off at the weekend.
No one disputes that the work is gruelling.
When we visited the plant, getting in through a side door, Chinese workers had just been deposited in the darkness by a white minibus for a night shift. One showed us his job: he was trimming doors for Samsung microwaves, inserting the glass, and covering them in bubble wrap. Dawn was breaking as we watched him leave 12 hours later.
Tang Guo's wife, who also worked at the plant, said: "You get swollen feet with the long hours. Sometimes your feet go numb with standing."
Tang Guo was on the same shift as Mr Zhang on his last day of work in October 2001. He had worked 24 hours on end that weekend, followed by a 16-hour shift, Tang Guo said. His quota that day was to stamp the Samsung logo on microwave doors 1,300 times.
At work Mr Zhang's headache began, and grew worse. At the end of the shift, Tang Guo helped him trudge down the Stockton Road back to the hostel, where he collapsed. A blood vessel in his brain had burst and a few days later at Middlesbrough General hospital, he died.
Hospital records show he was checked in as "Li Ming", but his death was certified in his true name, Zhang Guo Hua. "I gave them his passport at the hospital when he died," Tang Guo said. "He only got his true identity back after death."
His widow was sent for from China. She remains illegally in England, working on East Anglian farms, because there is no one else to send money to support their disabled daughter in Heilongjiang. She is reluctant to talk for fear of getting into trouble.
We asked Mr Lim at the agency if she had received any compensation. He said: "No, but the workers took up a collection for her." Those there at the time told us the 80 or so workers donated several hundred pounds out of their own low wages because they were so angry at their colleague's death.
There is no evidence that Mr Zhang's working conditions directly caused the subarachnoid haemorrhage on his death certificate. High blood pressure has many causes. But we suggested to Keith Boynton at Woo One that it was bad for anyone's health to have to work so hard. He replied: "It's bound to be."
A spokesman for Samsung, who have a global turnover of $33bn (Â£17.8bn) and boast of record UK factory profits through "unit cost reduction", said: "We are unaware of any unacceptable employment practices at Woo One. But we take this very seriously and will be arranging a meeting with Woo One to see if there is any foundation for these allegations."
The last annual report of Samsung's UK manufacturing subsidiary point out that the "number of units produced per man-hour has continued to increase".
Peter Mandelson, the former trade secretary in whose constituency Mr Zhang died, wrote an article in praise of Samsung in 1996, when the Queen opened their new factory. "Some have the impression that the success of the tiger economies is based on sweatshop labour," he wrote. "This is a false picture."