MAC: Mines and Communities

Minister claims the government is not legally bound to give miners' families compensation after a &

Published by MAC on 2006-08-23

Minister claims the government is not legally bound to give miners' families compensation after a "natural disaster."

China Labour Bulletin

23th August 2006

The suggestion by the Minister of Civil Affairs, Li Xueju, that the government was not legally obliged to pay compensation to the families of victims in the Shandong mining tragedy because it was a "natural disaster" is both irresponsible and alarming.

Although the official investigation into the cause of the disaster has yet to begin, Mr Li announced during a press conference in Beijing on 22 August that the flooding of the Huayuan and Minggong mines in Xintai which trapped 181 miners was a "natural disaster," and that "China currently has no compensation system for people killed and injured in natural disasters."

China's regulations on compensation payments for deaths in coal mines make it clear that if anyone dies in a coal mine accident they are entitled to a compensation payment no lower than 200,000 yuan. The compensation figure of 200,000 yuan was first mandated in the Shanxi provincial "Regulations on the responsibility for coal mine safety and the prevention of serious and major accidents," issued in November 2004, and soon became the accepted standard across the whole of China with the approval of the State Administration of Work Safety.

However, the wording of the regulations refers to "accidents" (shigu) not "disasters" (zaihai), which may indeed provide the mine owners with some kind of get-out clause. If true, this would be a serious cause for concern.

Mr Li went on to say that even though the Shandong flood was a natural disaster, the government would make an exception in this case and provide some form of compensation to the victims' families. Indeed the government has already provided the families of victims with 2,000 yuan each in emergency relief. However, for the Minister of Civil Affairs to suggest, before all human error has been ruled out by an official investigation, that the government was somehow doing the victims' families a favour by providing them with compensation is highly opportunistic and irresponsible.

There is considerable evidence that the flooding was not the "natural" disaster the government claims. The Shandong Provincial Coalmine Safety Administration warned of the danger of flooding due to heavy rain just one day before the levee of the nearby Wenhe River was breached and an estimated 12 million cubic metres of water flooded into the Huayuan Mine trapping 172 miners. A report on the organization's website warned that; "Especially in areas along rivers and lakes and low-lying areas where water easily accumulates and leaks, we must take preventive measures." The flood waters around the town of Xintai had been rising steadily for several days but the mine's management did not even take the basic precaution of suspending production while the flood defenses were checked. Even if the inundation was the result of a "70 year flood" as the authorities claim, if the mine had been closed as a precaution - as many others in the area had been - the miners would not have been trapped.

The government's determination to emphasize the "natural" causes of the Shandong mining disaster is understandable. In a natural disaster every one is a victim and no one is to blame. The government can not be held accountable for a natural disaster, indeed a natural disaster presents the government with an opportunity to demonstrate trs concern and compassion for the Chinese people by organizing the rescue effort and compensating the victim's families even though they claim they are not legally obliged to do so.

The government has been more determined than usual to make sure nothing tarnishes its image in the run up to the 17th Communist Party Congress this year and the Olympic Games next year. The government can not afford to found culpable for yet another major mining disaster when it has time and again publicly declared its commitment to improving mine safety. However the government's decision to blame this disaster on natural, unavoidable causes has clearly backfired. When Mr Li's comments were carried by the state media, relatives of the victims in Xintai reacted with anger, some threatening to sue for appropriate compensation.

"I feel very angry," the brother of one miner told the South China Morning Post. "Yes, the rain was heavy, but the management of the mine should be held responsible for making them work in such conditions."

There have already violent protests outside the Huayuan Mining Company Office in Xintai and riot police have been stationed outside to protect the building.

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