MAC: Mines and Communities

The Bulls in China

Published by MAC on 2003-09-15

The Bulls in China

September 2003

In the space of a few years, China has become the most rapacious single consumer of coal, gold, aluminium and other metals. One recent calculation is that a fifth of all current metals trade is with China, while an astonishing 80% of new mining depends on demand from this one country alone [see Miningweb, 4 September 2003]. But China is not just a huge market for imports; it is also a vast producer - both from domestic mines and others financed overseas, specifically in the Asia Pacific region. These developments wreak an horrendous toll: China's coal mines are the deadliest single extractive sector on the planet; miners' occupational health and safety (though statistics are weak or suspect) is almost certainly the worst anywhere. While the authorities are pledged to improve conditions and penalise those operating illegally, in practice many pits remain open, trying to produce as much coal as cheaply as possible in a glutted market - a situation for which the government is at least partly responsible. Meanwhile, the authorities continue to persecute workers and their leaders, as well as encourage neo-colonial mining projects in Tibet and Burma.

China mining deaths up despite government efforts Brad Ricks
Continuing Carnage in China's coal mines
World's deadliest coal mines power China's progress
International Solidarity

China mining deaths up despite government efforts Brad Ricks


19 September 2003

The number of serious coal mining accidents in China and the deaths they caused in the first eight months of this year has increased by 50% and 25% respectively on the same period for last year, according to a government official. In an interview with China Daily, Zhao Tiechui, deputy director of the State Administration of Work Safety, said 4150 workers have lost their lives in coal mining accidents this year.

Zhao said the six worst accidents up until September had claimed a total of 309 lives.

Despite the government's plea for coal miners to implement better workplace safety campaigns in recent years Zhao said there is still much to be done to make the industry safer in China.

"Small unlicensed coal mines are still the biggest headache and the key to preventing more accidents and death," Zhao said.

"The number of accidents and deaths caused by small coal mines have accounted for more than 70% of the total nationwide this year."

Continuing Carnage in China's coal mines: Official responses and recommendations

China Labour Bulletin, Hong Kong

6 September 2003

The past few months have seen a destructive cycle of coal mine accidents occurring one after another, followed by frantic government officials issuing forth directives and notices urging better protection of work health and safety.

Recent statements by the Director of the State Administration of Production Safety reveal that 380 people died each day in accidents (industrial and other work related accidents including traffic accidents) ; a figure that reportedly results in more than 1000 billion Yuan (12 billion US dollars) in direct economic loses each year. Although Director Wang Xianzheng stated that production safety has improved in some areas, the direct and indirect economic losses per year caused by industrial accidents alone totaled over 200 million Yuan or 2.5 percent of Chinas GDP.

Mining remains one of the most deadly industries in China. Despite some improvements over the past decade or so, official figures put the number of mine workers who died in 2002 as between 5,791 and 6,557, an increase over 2001. According to official statistics in the first half of 2003, the fatality rate per million tons of coal production in coalmines nationwide was 3,824, compared to 0.1 in Australia and the United States.

Without counting the number of incidents and accidents which go unreported or are covered up, an average of 18 mine workers are killed each day in China.

The following list gives a summary of some, but not all, of the fatal accidents in China's mines during the summer of 2003

1 September: Henan Province, Yichuang County, Fenjin Coal Mine: Flooding trapped 16 miners and a construction team.

18 August: Shanxi Province, Jingzhong City, Zuoquan County: A gas explosion killed 17 mine workers and left a further ten trapped. They are now believed dead. 13 August: Shanxi Province, Yangquan City: An explosion killed 28 miners.

11 August: Shanxi province, Datong, Xingergou Mine: Over 37 miners died during a gas explosion. Five are still missing. Two of the coal mine employees have been detained.

8 August: Hunan Province, Shuangfeng County: Gas explosion killed four and injured ten.

7 August: Sichuan Province, Chongqing Municipality, Yanwan village owned coal mine:12 workers out of 22 working remained trapped underground. A flood apparently caused by work accidentally digging into a nearby abandoned mine shaft.

26 July: Shandong province, Mushi Coal Mine, Zhaozhuang: 35 bodies were recovered after the mine flooded and collapsed onto an illegal mine shaft. Two miners managed to escape.

22 July: Inner Mongolia, Wuhai City: Five died in a flood in a privately owned mine

21 July: Hebei Province, Jishi Coal Mine: 29 miners trapped in flood, 17 escaped, the remaining 11 believed dead.

14 July: Shanxi Province, Baishui Township, Fengjiahe Township coal mine: Three miners died, the remaining three are still trapped and believed dead, a further 17 escaped during a flood caused by use of explosives . 13 July: Henan, Dongfeng Coal Mine, Baiping Township: 21 miners killed in coal flood.

12/13 July: Henan Province, Dongfeng Coal mine, Dengfeng city: Fifteen dead and a further six missing, believed dead in flood.

1 July: Shanxi Province, Hancheng: Four miners died in accident.

It is not known how many of these mines were operating legally, although figures from the State Administration of Work Safety suggest that over two thirds of all serious accidents in coal mines occur in those operating without permits and ignoring official orders to halt production.

Official Reactions

Shanxi Province Shanxi province is a major coal producer and has hundreds of small and medium sized coal mines with hundreds of illegal mines operating. The recent spate of accidents in the coal rich province of Shanxi led the provincial government to issue a new law which will hold senior officials at all levels responsible for coal mine accidents and allow for them to be severely punished if causalities occur. In addition, the provincial authorities ordered all mines in Shanxi to stop production for one week to undertake production checks. Only five major state owned mines were allowed to continue operating. Governor Liu Zhenhua, reportedly stated that it was "of vital importance to control the number of mines and completely shut down unauthorized mines in the process of establishing efficient supervision of production safety".

It was also reported in the China Daily that more than 80 officials in Shanxi will be held responsible for a series of major accidents from October to March 2003. Eighteen will face criminal charges while a further 64 will be subject to administrative discipline.

Vice-Governor Jin Shanzhong, told a tele-conference that "no efforts should be spared to guarantee the well-being of workers." He also urged coal mine managers as well as officials responsible for coal output to take full accountability for safe production and to ensure that precautions are in place to prevent similar disasters.

Clear and longstanding regulations expressly ban unlicensed coal mines and existing stipulations outline penalties for those ignoring the ban. In Weinan city, Shanxi province, the local authorities issued a notice in June/July ordering all mine operators to close down unlicensed coal mines immediately and to show no tolerance to illegal mine operators or those guilty of over-production. The fact that the authorities continue to have to issue such notices which mirror existing laws clearly shows how little progress has been made in actually implementing such bans on unlicensed mines. However, the Government additionally stated that if it found any unlicensed mines still operating, they would be blown up and, in the first three weeks of July, three mines were reportedly blown up, including the Hancheng County mine, the scene of an explosion on 1 July which killed four miners.

It was also announced in July, that the provincial government is planning to construct an information network to undertake long distance surveillance of coal mine safety to be finished by the end of 2004. The network is designed to monitor hidden danger reporting, accident alarms, security surveillance, on line training and information sharing.

Henan Province After the major accident at the Anli coal mine on 24 May which killed 15 miners, local officials stated that out of the 17 people allegedly responsible for the accident, a total of eight (including the manager, Liu Baosheng) would be prosecuted for negligence. Zhang Daofeng, a manager with Long'an District Office for Administration of Mineral Resources, was dismissed from the civil service for issuing a license to the Anli Colliery without inspecting the mine. He will face prosecution, and four other government officials have been removed from their civil service posts. The remaining officials have been given administrative punishments. In addition, three other mines where a total of 43 mine workers were killed in recent months were closed for violating safety procedures and for mining beyond their agreed boundaries.

The three mines are reportedly; Dongfeng Coal Mine in Baiping Township of Dengfeng City, Anli Coalmine in Long'an District of Anyang City, and Shengli No. 2 Colliery in Yichuan County.

In the aftermath of the flood at the Dongfeng Coal mine on 13 July, the mine's legal representative, its foreman and other administrative personnel fled the area after allegedly preventing escaped miners from reporting the accident to the local authorities and preventing rescue work. Rescue teams only arrived at the mine some ten hours after the accident occurred. Six officials were later caught by local police, including the deputy head of the mine, Li Honglin; the chief technician, Sun Guangjian; the mine's legal representative, Fan Guoxue; and the mine controller Niu Shuyun. The head of the mine and its main shareholder surrendered to the police.

Dongfeng Coal Mine is a township-owned mine which has been operating for over 10 years. It was ordered to close down in 2002 for a period of two years to undertake improvements in its production safety but re-opened last year after passing a production safety examination

Shandong In Shandong, the investigation into the accident at Mushi coal mine discovered that the flood was due to a shaft collapsing under the weight of water coming through a passage leading to an unregistered and illegal shaft. The mine was reportedly operating illegal shafts around the coal mine proper, and which the owners had failed to identify. The owners had also hidden details of the locations of illegal mining operations beneath the shaft to avoid discovery. The manager of the mine, Li Guangdou, was alleged to be responsible for the accident. It is not known what measures have been taken against him.

National In response to the massive accident in March 2003 at the Mengnanzhuang mine in Shanxi Province which killed 72 miners, (many of whom died after being forced back down gas-filled shafts) the central authorities issued a record fine of 21.18 million Yuan (some 2.55 million US dollars) and ordered the mine to close down immediately. The fine was announced by Deputy Director Wang Dexue of the State Administration of Work Safety at a press conference held by the State Council Information Office.

According to an announcement on 27 August 2003, the central authorities will allocate a further 2.2 billion Yuan (some 265 million US dollars) to improve safety in coal mines nationwide. In 2002 and 2003, China earmarked a total of 4 billion Yuan for this purpose, according to State Council sources.

However, reports suggest that, in reality, safety investment in mines has fallen between 3 to 4 billion Yuan short of previously set targets. Indeed in Heilongjiang Province alone, investment in coal mining safety was reported to be some 570 million Yuan short of the planned targets. It was also announced on 17 June, that a more comprehensive legal system for addressing workplace safety will be put into place over the next two to three years and from 1 July; penalties will apply to people who break work safety laws implemented as part of the Work Safety Law which came into force in November 2002. New rules of mine safety also came into force on 15 August which allow for mine owners to be fined up to 150,000 Yuan and have their mines closed if they are found guilty of breaching the new safety regulations.

The SAWS is also planning to produce rules of workplace safety, dealing with reporting systems and emergency procedures and announced that it has established over 290 work safety supervision departments above city level in the past three years, some 20 provincial coal mine safety supervision bureaus and 69 offices in the major coal mines.

At numerous national conferences and tele-conferences held regularly throughout the summer in the aftermath of the accidents, national officials from the State Administration of Work Safety yet again stressed the importance of health and safety in coal mines and urged government officials and entrepreneurs to directly ensure production safety by visiting and checking on conditions, demanding a speedy upgrading of safe production technology. Despite these new announcements, few innovative or concrete ideas and initiatives for achieving improved safety were offered.

Despite the rhetoric and good intentions expressed at the recent meetings, the same measures, the same temporary bans on production and the same type of inspections have been announced each and every year in the past decade or so and similar exhortations made to the local governments to implement existing laws and yet the disastrous situation of safety in China's coal mines continues unchanged. While the efforts of Shanxi province, for example, are commended, it should be noted that the most of the new directives remain very similar to those issued in previous years in response to similar accidents. It remains to be seen if some of the new procedures and new regulations (such as the information network and the increased penalties for those responsible officials) will have the necessary impact on the situation and will halt the continual cycle of accidents.

Despite safety checks on mines and the closing down of illegal mines or mines failing safety inspections, many mines simply wait until inspections are finished and the officials leave the area and then they re-open. In many cases, mines are re-opened with the complicity of local officials who have much to gain from the continued production of coal in their area; indeed many local governments are unwilling to close down mines in their area as they are heavily dependant on tax revenues created by the mines. In many of the mines investigated by officials, even the most basic of safety measures have not been installed. In some instances mines are operating at a very low profit margin due to the current over-production of coal in China. This adds to the perceived need to extract as much coal as possible as cheaply as possible. In some cases where mines are asked to close down, the owners organize workers to extract the maximum amount of coal by working the mines 24 hours a day before the closure date arrives; thus increasing the chances of more accidents.

The lack of rural jobs and the steady encroachment of industry - including coal mines - onto farming land have led many rural villagers to turn to mining as way to make a living. With no other livelihood available and with little education or training, many rural workers are willing to work for cash in appalling and unsafe conditions, often assisting coal mine owners in avoiding safety procedures to ensure continued employment. Many have also been willing to work in illegal single shaft mines which operate in isolated areas where there are few chances of being investigated by safety inspection teams. In fact, township and village owned mines are the most dangerous mines operating in China, with over 2,355 fatal accidents occurring in 2002 compared with 485 fatal accidents in major state owned mines. Control over these smaller mines remains in many cases, almost non-existent due to local corruption and paybacks from officials.

In many instances safety systems exist in name only - documents and directives are issued by national levels of government and passed down, but ignored. Meetings at the central and local level are held to discuss safety, but no action is taken. Despite the plethora of regulations, the root problems with the current measures arise both from the top down approach to work safety, and the centralized approach used (as opposed to enforceable and locally suitable measures). Some good regulations exist but are ignored by local officials due to ignorance, official complicity with illegal mine operators, the desire to receive taxes, the inability to properly close down mines and a lack of resources available at the local level to investigate, monitor and enforce penalties.

In addition, regulations are targeted primarily at the owners and managers of the mines as well as safety officials. In the majority of regulations, workers are not targeted and their involvement in work safety is not stressed. Although many newer regulations do push for proper training of workers there is nothing which empowers the workers to demand such training, and instead they are reliant on the mine owners and other officials. Workers, deprived of a trade union to oversee their safety, have little power to ask for training and put forward suggestions on safety in the mines, despite being the ones which are generally the most aware of the dangers; and the ones with most to lose.

The Labour Law of China as well as the Work Safety law gives Chinese workers various rights relating to occupational health and safety, including the right to suggest safety procedures, to stop work in unsafe conditions and to ask for inspections. However, in the majority of workplaces, these rights are ignored and often unknown. In the absence of any effective and representative trade union, China Labour Bulletin believes strongly in the need for the creation of worker safety committees as an effective and low tech solution to the current levels of safety in coal mine production.

In fact, on December 12, 2001, China's State Economic and Trade Commission (SETC), with reference to the "ILO Guidelines on Occupational Safety and Health Management Systems" formulated a document entitled "Guidelines on Occupational Safety and Health Management Systems" (hereafter Guidelines). The aim of this document was to;

"Encourage all employees of employing units, especially top level executives, managers, workers and their representatives to adopt rational principles of OSH management and methods in order to uphold and continue to improve effective OSH in China".

The Guidelines asked that "work units shall voluntarily set up and maintain OSH management systems and support employees and their representatives to actively take part in OSH activities. They shall also confirm and guarantee that OSH measures and requests apply not only to their own employees, but also to subcontractors and directly employed temporary workers. Enterprises involved in high risk work along with those employing units that have suffered serious accidents have a special responsibility to set up and maintain OSH management systems".

The Guidelines also stipulated that once enterprises had set up "OSH management systems", they should establish an "OSH Committee" in which a fair proportion of workers are to take part. The guidelines have now been in existence for almost two years but there has been little reporting on progress towards implementing the recommendations.

Although there are several problems associated with workers' occupational health and safety committees (WOC), which include the lack of trained miners, the high turnover in many mines and the risks many miners are willing to take in order to remain employed by a mine (which includes the acceptance of unsafe conditions), it is clear that there is a pressing need for workers to become more involved in the promotion of safety in coal mines as the current ownership of many of China's coal mines are unwilling to invest in even basic improvements and local governments are often complicit in allowing the status quo to continue.

For more details on the current laws in China governing occupation work safety and a discussion on some possible solutions, please see "The Absence of Rigor and the Failure of Implementation" and CLB's "Proposals to improve Occupation Health and Safety in China."

For further details on safety in coal mining (as well as other industries).


World's deadliest coal mines power China's progress

USA Today by David Lynch

7 July 2003

Gas explosion at Fushun's Mengjiagou coalmine kills 25 miners. A victim's wife is beaten and hospitalized by company security guards for asking about compensation 18 miners killed in Fushun's Mengjiagou coalmine accident (initial figures)

MENGJIAGOU, China; The first time gas fumes leaking from underground coal deposits detonated and killed two dozen miners, managers at the local state-owned mine swung into action.

"We had meetings on coal mining safety every day," says miner Kang Xingsheng. "But there were no actual measures taken to improve safety; only meetings." So, 10 years later, it happened again. On March 30, gas fumes ignited in a fireball that killed an additional 25 of Kang's co-workers in this remote mining village about 525 miles northeast of Beijing. Eleven others were injured, some so seriously they will never return to the mines. Ten men were lucky enough to escape.

As China engages in a headlong pursuit of prosperity, its workers toil amid grave risks in many corners of the economy. Nowhere are the dangers greater than in its coal mines, the world's deadliest.

Critics say the government and its business allies regard safety as a distraction from the more pressing demands of growth, as did England and the United States during their industrial revolutions. Yet the country's new leadership is awakening. "The government must pay greater attention to the safety problems in our production in all fields," said Hu Jintao, shortly before becoming China's new president. "This is an important task that we must take seriously."

Far from the soaring glass towers of Shanghai and Beijing, China's often-primitive coal mines epitomize the human cost of the nation's rising living standards. Last year, 6,995 coal miners were killed in explosions, roof collapses and floods, according to government statistics. (By comparison, 27 American coal miners lost their lives in 2002.) Independent experts say China's death toll is actually closer to 10,000, because some mine owners routinely minimize casualty figures and pay victims' families to keep quiet.

The world's largest coal producer, China depends upon the fuel for 75% of its power needs. Under communism, miners were a celebrated part of the proletarian elite. In 1922, a young Mao Tse-tung even organized his first significant labor protest in the coal fields of Anyuan. Now, they suffer as the country's economic advance outstrips occupational safeguards.

"Every day, if you're going into the mines, there's the danger of losing your life. There could be a gas explosion or a rock dropping from the ceiling. There's always the chance accidents are going to happen," Kang says, "But you have to live. You have to feed your family. You know it's dangerous. But being scared doesn't help anything."

Although China's communist government bans independent trade unions that might protect miners or workers, seeing them as a threat to its monopoly on power, analysts credit Beijing with trying to improve conditions:

Officials passed a new occupational safety law last year. In January, Wen Jiabao, soon to become China's new premier, celebrated Chinese New Year by joining coal miners 2,100 feet below ground to eat traditional dumplings.

In May, the central government issued a new regulation specifically requiring tough inspections of the nation's troubled coal mines and immediate action to fix unsafe conditions.

Safety directives not enforced

But Beijing has a hard time enforcing safety directives on cash-strapped provincial governments and private enterprises. The coal mining industry is splintered among tens of thousands of small pits, many operating only for short periods and staffed by a handful of ill-trained miners.

At the end of 1999, there were 36,700 active mines, according to Lu Jianzhang of the China Coal Research Institute, which is partially funded by the government. Each year, they produce about 1.1 billion tons of coal. "In the U.S., you produce a similar amount of coal with 1,750 mines," he said.

Even when the central government orders unsafe mines closed, local officials; desperate for the mines' tax revenue, often ignore the edicts. "Local government officials also are on the boards of directors of these enterprises. Collusion between those two makes enforcement more difficult," says Chen Meei-Shia of Cheng Kung University Medical School in Taiwan. Through an aide, Wang Shuhe, the government official overseeing mine safety efforts, declined an interview request.

Reforms that have opened China to market forces have had an enormous impact upon the coal mining industry. State-owned mines, facing pressure to become more competitive, are preoccupied with massive layoffs and reorganizations. Their private rivals often are operated by subcontractors who lack a long-term interest in the mine or those who work it.

Miners, frequently impoverished farmers drawn from distant villages, often receive little training before heading below ground, says Han Dong Fang of the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin.

"There's no reason for the subcontractor, who'll be there temporarily, to spend money on safety," he says. This village of shabby single-story cement and brick homes, situated amid softly undulating hills, has been dependent upon the local state-owned mine for two decades. Village women soap their families' clothes against flat rocks in a feeble creek while idle adults and children crowd to stare at a rare foreign visitor. Before the accident, Kang, 44, began each day with an ample breakfast of rice, vegetables, pork and sometimes corn bread. The single meal would last him through an exhausting eight-hour day in a subterranean twilight lit only by miners' headlamps.

On March 30, he had finished distributing the day's assignments to his team of miners and began the slow journey back to the surface. The electricity that powers giant fans to disperse the volatile gases had gone out several minutes earlier. Riding in one of the rail carts that carried miners and coal out of the earth, Kang was suddenly jarred by a deafening blast he describes as "KUTONG."

"I immediately knew it was a gas explosion. My first thought was getting out as fast as possible," he says. It took Kang 15 minutes to drag his wiry frame out of the mine. Over the next 20 hours, he says, he made several return trips, pulling two injured miners to safety.

Officials insist mines getting safer

Government officials insist China's mines and factories are getting safer. Through the end of April, 4,261 workers died in industrial and mining accidents. At that pace, this year's total would be 14% below last year's, but officials say they cannot specify how many coal miners have died so far this year.

How do local officials respond to questions about the March 30 accident? Just one week after the accident, two mine managers were arrested for violating work rules that require mines to be evacuated while the gas dispersal fans are idle. One was later sentenced to three years in prison; the fate of the second man could not be learned.

Though quick to punish, the officials also have discouraged independent inquiry. As a USA TODAY reporter interviewed Kang in the miner's sparsely furnished home, a local Communist Party official, accompanied by a representative of China's powerful internal security organization, interrupted and insisted that the journalist immediately leave. The party cadre carried a sleek Panasonic GD88 cell phone, with digital camera, which retails for almost $600, a small fortune in a village where no one has seen a paycheck in three months.

The next day, when the mine reopened for the first time since the accident, local officials demoted Kang to ordinary worker from his position as mining team "captain," which he had held for 20 years. The punishment could cost the father of four up to 40% of his $150 monthly salary. "You can have anybody come to investigate this matter," a local party official told him. "But remember, we're the boss here."

International Solidarity

China Labour Bulletin

22 August 2003

International Metalworkers Federation Statement on release of Di Tiangui

The statement below comes form the International Metalworkers Federation and reports on the use of global worker campaigns to help secure the release of imprisoned Chinese workers. The release of Di Tiangui comes after one year's detention without proper charge or trial. It is believed that he has been told that his detention equates to a one year assignment of re-education through labour (an administrative punishment which allows for people - including many dissidents and work activists - to be detained for up to three years without criminal charges or a trial).

International solidarity campaigns in favour of Chinese labour activists can produce a positive outcome. The recent release after one year's imprisonment of metalworker activist Di Tiangui gives encouragement for international trade union campaigns in favour of basic workers' rights in China.

Di, a retired metalworker from an engineering plant in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, was arrested in June 2002 after writing a letter to the then Chinese President Jian Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji requesting the government allow an independent alliance of retired workers from state-owned enterprises. For having organised these retirees to press for their pension and welfare benefits, Di was charged with "subversion of state", a crime which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment or execution. It was reported that during his detention he was shackled and beaten, requiring hospitalisation on three occasions.

Over the years, the IMF and a number of other trade union organisations have been campaigning for basic workers' rights in China, which has the sad reputation of having more labour activists in prison than any other country in the world, and widespread violations of internationally recognised labour rights. The IMF-affiliated United Auto Workers has such an ongoing campaign and says that the release of Di represents "a big win and shows how international solidarity can make a difference in the lives of workers around the world."

However, much more needs to be done. Amongst many other examples, independent metalworker activists Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang were sentenced in May 2003 to long and harsh prison terms for their part in a peaceful workers' protest over unpaid wages and benefits. Both men, who are in extremely poor health, were recently transferred far from their families to a prison farm where it is thought they will be compelled to carry out forced labour.

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