MAC/20: Mines and Communities

CHINA: more disasters, more crackdowns

Published by MAC on 2005-11-29


CHINA: more disasters, more crackdowns

Yet another disaster struck a state-owned coal mine in China late last month killing at least 140 workers.

As revealed by Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, the overall mineworkers' death toll has phenomenally increased since the regime's massive increase in industrialisation and consumerism over the past five years.

Between 2000 and 2005 officially more than 30,000 mineworkers died in over 18,000 serious accidents (The true figure is likely to be much higher).

Since the foundation of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949, nine disasters have each claimed the lives of a hundred or more miners. Seven of these ocurred after 2000; and no less than five of these in the past thirteen months alone.

Following the Dongfeng explosion, once again state officials have deplored the accident, promising new measures to enforce occupational health and safety and close down dangerous pits. But - as described by "banned" lawyer Gao Zhisheng in a moving account of his visit to families of those sacrificed in the Chenjiashan disaster of November 2004 - the reality is likely to be very different, with blame being displaced onto the victims.


CHINA: More disasters, more meetings and more crackdowns

China Labour Bulletin News Flash No. 58

29th November 2005

The latest coal mine disaster which occurred at the Dongfeng Coal Mine in Heilongjiang Province late on 27 November 2005, has killed 140 miners so far. Nine miners are still missing and the death toll is likely to rise, officials reports said.

The coal dust explosion that killed these men occurred in a medium-sized, state-owned mine run by the Qitahe branch of Longmei Mining (Group) Co. This was not a small poorly run mine with few funds to invest in safety equipment. The first mine shaft was dug in 1956 and large-scale mining was begun in 1972. This mine produced 500,000 tonnes of coal annually, in line with its annual production quota.

During a video conference of an emergency meeting on coal mine safety held by the Heilongjiang provincial government on 28 November, the government announced that it would apply "extraordinary measures" to close down all the unsafe coal mines in the province by the end of this year.

This is a familiar announcement: After each coal mine disaster, particularly those which cause more than 100 deaths, we are told by government officials that they will close down all these unsafe coal mines.

But as coal mine accidents happen again and again, and more workers lose their lives in the pits, we have to ask how effective are these emergency meetings, "courageous and extraordinary" measures, and "strong determination" in reducing the soaring number of coal mine accidents.

According to statistics from the State Administration of Work Safety, there were 18,071 coal mine accidents which killed a total of 30,924 miners between 2000 and 2004 - an average of 1.71 deaths in each accident. The number of coal mine accidents, wherein more than 100 deaths have been recorded, has been increasing. Since the People's Republic of China was established in 1949, there have been nine coal mine disasters which resulted in more than 100 deaths each. Of those, seven occurred after 2000 and five of these seven accidents happened in a period of just 13 months between 2004 and 2005! Chinese coal miners are paying with their blood to support China's 8 percent annual economic growth. This is really too cruel and too heavy a price to pay.

The central government appears to have exhausted all available measures to reduce the number of accidents, including enacting news laws and regulations, carrying out official inspections, shutting down coal mines, and punishing corrupt officials.

We are inclined to believe reports we have heard that this centralized power is losing its grip on the country, and that central government orders cannot be effectively implemented outside the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party at Zhongnanhai. We really can expect very little from this government under such circumstances, apart from lamenting the rising number of coal mine accidents and corruption among local government officials.

Cai Chongguo, China Labour Bulletin's trade union education director, once pointed out that as China's market economy develops at the current rapid rate and the demand for energy soars, the government will lose its ability to monitor the safety of coal production. The series of government measures aimed at closing unsafe mines, announced after each major disaster, would only seriously affect the energy market, push up coal prices and lead to the vicious cycle of more and larger illegal coal mining and over-production.

China Labour Bulletin still believes that occupational health and safety in China can only achieve a fundamental improvement by reforming the current system of work safety supervision. That is, workers should be allowed to organize themselves and take part in coal mine safety supervision.

At this time, we would like to express our condolences to those families who have lost loved ones in the Dongfeng Coal Mine disaster.


Victims of Chenjiashan Coal Mine disaster forgotten

China Labour Bulletin News Flash No. 5

9 December 2005

After the Chenjiashan Coalmine accident happened on 28 November 2004 in which 166 miners were killed, Premier Wen Jiabao went to visit the victims' families in Tungchuan City, Shaanxi Province, in January 2005 and he said to them: "I come to bring you justice." Now, one year has passed but justice still eludes the victims' families.

On 12 November 2005, prominent civil rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, who had provided legal assistance to the victims' families to fight for compensation for their loved ones, wrote the following article to mark the first anniversary of this disaster after he went to visit the bereaved families.


Gao Zhisheng on first anniversary of Chenjiashan disaster

[China Labour Bulletin has translated this article from Chinese into English]

A massive gas explosion at the Chenjiashan Coalmine took the lives of 166 miners at 7.10 am on 28 November 2004. They are Ding Dayuan, Ding Aiguo, Ma Ruxiao, Wang Kuangsheng, Wang Shigen, Niu Tieqi.... Nearly one year later, at 4 pm on 11 November 2005, at the end of my visit to Chenjiashan, the widow of coal miner Wu Yindi brought me to the graveyard and showed me the graves of those 166 miners. Stretching across a mountain slope, these 166 graves looked nearly identical, except for the names on the headstones. After a minute's silence for the victims, I read each name and put them in my heart.

In April 2005, I had received 19 letters from the families of the Chenjiashan victims. In them, they revealed the true cause of this calamity and reflected the true face of the local officials. They said the officials showed a sad and sympathetic face to the media and outside world, but their faces were devoid of any compassion when they met the grieving widows and fatherless children in this village.

After reading those letters, I decided to meet them in Xi'an. And now, whenever I recall that meeting, my heart aches. At that time, all outsiders were regarded with suspicion and scores of policemen and their vehicles were stationed along the highway leading to Chenjiashan, in order to prevent anyone from outside investigating the accident. The bereaved families were also regarded suspiciously and any trip outside Chenjiashan by any of them was closely monitored. My appointment with the group, in all 19 widows and their 22 children, was for 9.30 am that morning, but they did not reach the hotel where I was staying until noon. Although they had set off at dawn, they were late because they had to take different routes and climb over several mountains to escape the police surveillance, before boarding buses at different stations for Xi'an.

The scene at the meeting was heartbreaking. Many of them broke down and cried, attracting the attention of the entire floor of residents of the hotel. I wrote to a friend who worked for the government later, telling him, "Anybody who witnessed this meeting with the Chenjiashan victims' families would immediately feel sick and disappointed with our government officials."

Seven months passed before I met them again on 11 November 2005. "Chenjiashan coalmine is in fact in a valley. You can call it Chenjia Valley," the taxi-driver told me.

Chenjiashan is in fact located in a long, narrow valley with a small river flowing through it. There are roads approaching the valley from either side. I set off from Xi'an at 8 am and reached the nearest village from Chenjiashan at 10 am. I was about to ask for directions when my mobile phone rang. A nervous voice came through. "Lawyer Gao, please don't drive up here. Before dawn, lots of police arrived and they have blocked the road. All roads are guarded by police. It is just like when (Premier) Wen Jiabao came. They are going to detain you. Now, I'll tell you where you should hide your vehicle, then you have to walk to our place. I will give you instructions. They have been watching us since last night, but we know how to handle this."

With the help of this lady, I hid the taxi and started to walk along the railway which crossed over the mountains. Before long my dark suit was white from the dust that covered the high grass I was walking through. Finally, I arrived at a remote house.

A group of widows waited there. They forced out a smile when they saw me. But when we settled down, Wang Xiaoling, the widow of Gao Zibin, started to weep. One could tell that she was trying to control her emotions but her sadness and feelings of loss were too much and she could not control herself. When the other women in the house heard her weeping, they couldn't hold back their tears either. "They treat us so inhumanely. The Mining Bureau celebrated its 50th anniversary and each employee was given a 1,300-yuan bonus. The leaders even received thousands yuan. But as for us, we weren't given a penny, even though our husbands died for this coalmine. We fought that for a long time, but in the end they gave us only 100 yuan for each family," one of the widows said.

Another lady said, "How can they act like this? How can they behave so mercilessly? Our house is about to fall down, and my family is very scared to continue living there. We have sought help from the leaders, but they just ignore us. It could collapse at any time."

Liu Li (pseudonym) sobbed, "Lawyer Gao, who can bring us justice? Apart from you, who will listen to us and take our problems seriously? In the past year, the mining bureau has treated us like thieves. For the first six months, they set up checkpoints on the highway and wouldn't allow anyone from the victims' families to leave this valley. On average, each family received 80,000 yuan in compensation, which is lower than other places in China.

"No official has been sentenced (for causing this accident). Each family here faces so many difficulties and when we go to the leaders, they act impatient with us, or they ignore us, or even beat us up. Zhang Ning (a widow) was beaten by a police chief and sent to hospital. When we try to find the senior leaders, they (the police) stop us on the highways and arrest us. Once 14 of us tried to sneak out but we were caught and brought back. Now the mining bureau is getting smarter.

"They realize that manning checkpoints on the highways 24 hours a day requires a lot of effort, so they have sent out messages to all the drivers in the region, telling them that anyone who gives us a ride will have his driver's or operator's license taken away. Now, no bus in the area dares to pick us up. Where can we go now? Nowhere! And the mining bureau is relieved," said Zhang Yan (pseudonym).

"Our husbands were killed and now we live in fear. Do you think that is just? Wen Jiabao visited us in January, but I am sure you didn't see what really happened here on television. The provincial government and the mining bureau knew his schedule before he arrived. Police were assigned to our place a few days before Wen came, especially to the victims' families.

"People like Liu Chun-e, the poorest person in the region, were locked up, because they feared that we would complain to Wen about the forcible production which led to the deaths of our husbands. They didn't want Wen to know that they only cared about the coal, and not the miners. Yet, we, 17 women, managed to sneak out and walked a long way to get to a place where Wen would pass by. We divided into two groups, then kneeled down on the highway. Those awful officials forced us to do that, and we couldn't think of any other possibilities. When we approached the cars, many of the car doors opened, but I couldn't figure out who Wen Jiabao was.

"I grabbed the first one I could reach and asked him to investigate the cause of the accident, to punish the mine leaders who forced the miners to work. I asked that man if he was Wen Jiabao or Provincial Governor Chen, and the person next to him said he was Li, the general secretary of the provincial government, and the man sitting in the car was Governor Chen. When I was about to pull him out of the car, a group of policemen stopped me, and each of us [widows] was taken away by three or four policemen. I heard Zhao Yongmei crying: 'We want to see Chairman Wen [Wen Jiabao], Chairman Wen must bring us justice.' When I turned, I saw Zhao was grabbing a leader's hand tightly, and that leader said, 'Just tell me. There's no rush, I am Wen Jiabao and I am going to bring you justice.'

"When we heard him saying he was Wen, we couldn't believe it. We didn't know what to say and just cried out. Police, armed police started to remove us, so that Wen could proceed with his visit. Actually I guess he was forced to say he was going to bring us justice, because we had blocked the highway. He left ten months ago and we have heard nothing from him. Only one of the 19 families that visited you in Xian is doing okay. The rest are penniless.

"Did you read the letters we sent you? Do you know how the blast happened? In those days, the gas level at the pit was very high and when Liu Shuangming, the work safety chief, reported it to the mine manager, the mine manager shouted at him, "The management wants coal, not miners."

Everyone has heard this story. On the 23rd [November 2004], there was a fire in the pit. Miners from the 8 p.m. shift and the general work supervisor hurried back to the surface, but they were all ordered to go back to work. On 24th [November 2004], the same shift of miners saw a fire; some got out immediately. Some even left their clothes behind. Yet, those poor men were forced to go back to work right away. On the 25th [November 2004], on the 4 p.m. shift the gas level was very high and the alarm kept going off. A supervisor who monitors the gas-level turned off the alarm. Wang Xiaobo, a miner, asked the one monitoring gas-level , "If you turn the alarm off, how can you tell when the gas reaches a critical level? The supervisor said, "My chief told me to turn it off. They don't want the miners to escape." But Wang did 'escape' from work for few days and that saved his life. On the 26th [November 2004], our section chief wrote a report to the mine management, stating "Production must stop." His warning was not accepted, and instead he was reprimanded."

"My husband told me on the evening of the 27th [November 2004] that the mine was too dangerous to enter and it could take lives at anytime. I pleaded with him to take a few days off. He told him it was not allowed, unless he wanted to lose 20% of his wages and that month's bonus. He worked 12 hours a day (8 hours in the pit) and he earned at average 600 yuan per month, never more than 800 yuan. The next day [after he told me about the dangerous conditions in the mine], it [the tragedy] happened. He was murdered by those black-hearted leaders. They killed him intentionally." Ms Fu, a tough lady, told me all these details.

One funny thing was the mine management was aware of my visit to Chenjiashan. When I left the small hut, plain-clothes police recognized me and followed me quite openly. Most of the time, they were two to three meters away from me. At 3 p.m. I went to a restaurant for lunch and those three policemen took a table not more than 1.5 meters away. Their leader -- at least he looked like a leader -- was using his mobile phone to report my activities to the other side. "We found a man in a suit, yes, with a tie. I believe it is him." I couldn't help adding, "Lawyer Gao." He continued reporting, "Oh yes, it is him. He just said he is Lawyer Gao. He's brought a suitcase with him..."

"Now he's started to eat, right, a big bowl of noodles..." "He's arriving at the graveyard. Now he's bowing in front of one of the graves. Yes, he is keeping his head low. Now he moves. He's taking off his jacket and now he's taking a photo. Shall I stop him? Hello.... Hey, he's getting in a car now."

When I saw the taxi driver, he told me that after I left to meet the miners' families earlier that day, a jeep approached his taxi and the people from that car watched him for a while.

That evening, exhausted and covered with dust, I fell asleep in the taxi as soon as it set off. I slept until 9 pm when the taxi reached Xi'an and the driver woke me up.


Nuevo desastre en el sector minero chino, con al menos 68 muertos

28th November 2005

Terra Actualidad - EFE

Al menos 68 mineros murieron hoy en el noreste de China y 79 permanecen atrapados en un nuevo accidente en la industria nacional del carbón, que se cobra cada año un 80 por ciento de las muertes en el sector mundial.

Los trabajadores fallecieron en una explosión que se produjo el domingo hacia las 21.40 hora local (13.40 GMT) en la mina de carbón de Dongfeng, cuando 221 mineros trabajaban en ella.

El accidente ocurrió en la localidad de Qitaihe de la provincia nororiental china de Heilongjiang, la misma afectada desde la semana pasada por el desastre ecológico del río Songhua, que dejó a su capital, Harbin, sin suministro de agua durante cinco días.

Los equipos de rescate, compuestos por 269 efectivos, están tratando de sacar del interior del pozo accidentado a 22 mineros que ya fueron localizados vivos, pero no han podido salir todavía.

El Grupo Longmei, dueño de la mina siniestrada, es un conglomerado empresarial compuesto por las cuatro principales minas estatales de la provincia de Heilongjiang y un capital registrado de 1.600 millones de dólares (1.370 millones de euros).

El gobernador provincial, Zhang Zuoji, quien hoy copó las portadas de la prensa china (bebió el primer vaso de agua del grifo en Harbin, una vez que el agua contaminada hubiera pasado de largo) fue al lugar del accidente para supervisar las labores de rescate.

El director de la Administración Estatal de Seguridad Laboral del Estado, Li Yizhong, que acababa de regresar a Pekín desde Harbin para supervisar las labores de limpieza del río Songhua, tuvo hoy que viajar de nuevo a la misma provincia, esta vez debido al accidente minero.

El sector del carbón chino registra cada año un 80 por ciento de las muertes del mundo, en concreto 6.027 en 2004 según cifras oficiales (aunque en la minería china en general, las muertes se elevan a más de 8.000).

La principal causa de los accidentes es la falta de medidas de seguridad en muchas de ellas y la sobreexplotación de los pozos (muchos de los accidentes ocurren de madrugada), que contribuye a que aumenten los niveles de gas en el interior de esas instalaciones.

Sólo este año China ordenó el cierre de 13.000 explotaciones por considerar que no disponían de las necesarias medidas de seguridad, pero muchas siguieron funcionando en connivencia con los políticos locales, que en muchos casos tienen acciones de las minas o son incluso dueños de ellas.

El carbón provee más de un 70 por ciento de la energía en China, un país que está buscando desesperadamente otras fuentes para alimentar su rápido desarrollo económico, con la construcción de nuevas centrales nucleares y la inversión en energías como la solar, la eólica o la geotérmica.

Por ahora, sin embargo, el carbón es la base del desarrollo chino, lo que causa que el país tenga que cavar cada vez más profundo en su subsuelo para encontrar nuevos yacimientos, aumentando la peligrosidad (la concentración de grisú y otros gases sube con la mayor profundidad).

China intenta lo imposible por frenar la sangría de muertes, desde prohibir que los políticos inviertan en el sector minero (todavía son miles los que tienen intereses en explotaciones mineras) hasta obligar a los capataces que bajen con los mineros, o investigar picos y herramientas que no produzcan chispas.

Los esfuerzos hasta ahora no han tenido excesivo éxito, y los accidentes mineros siguen siendo frecuentes en las páginas de sucesos todas las semanas (se calcula que este año han muerto 1.340 mineros, aunque se trata de estimaciones parciales y los datos oficiales no se conocerán hasta 2006).

Este año, para más inri, se produjo el peor accidente minero ocurrido en China en los últimos 63 años, cuando 214 trabajadores perecieron en la explosión de una mina de carbón de Sunjiawan, del distrito de Fuxin (provincia nororiental de Liaoning), el pasado 14 de febrero.

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