MAC: Mines and Communities

China's Mining Tragedies

Published by MAC on 2005-08-10

China's Mining Tragedies

By HAN DONGFANG, Director of China Labour Bulletin

Published in the Asian Wall Street Journal on 10 August 2005

The more than 100 workers apparently drowned in a mine in the southern province of Guangdong are the latest victims of the sadly all too common accidents that have claimed the lives of at least 6,000 miners in China over the past 12 months.

The Xingning mine was operating without a licence and in defiance of an order to shut down for inspection when the floodwater poured in on Sunday — trapping at least 102 miners underground — according to a report by Xinhua, China's state-run news agency, yesterday.

Terrible though this tragedy is, it is far from unique. Less than a month ago, an explosion rocked the Shenlong coal mine in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang, killing more than 80 miners. In addition to the high loss of life, several other factors about the July 11 disaster at Shenlong were particularly egregious. The mine’s safe production capacity had been exceeded by six times, a recipe for disaster akin to filling a ship to six times its carrying capacity. It lacked a ventilation shaft, another factor leading to the explosion. Most damning of all, the alarm monitoring gas buildup had sounded a full three hours before the explosion occurred. Those in charge of the mine failed to inform the miners of this fact, and instead they were sent in to continue turning a profit for the owners. They were sent to their deaths.

On any given day, similar neglect and disregard of basic work-safety laws could be observed at a thousand other mining operations around China, and the root causes of the unending series of industrial disasters that ensue are official greed, corruption and lack of concern for human life. I spent most of the day following the Shenlong mining accident on the phone to various people in Xinjiang.

Though independent trade unions are forbidden in China, all coal miners are theoretically protected by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, or ACFTU, the sole legally-permitted union. So I made a call to the local ACFTU official. He assured me that there had been union representatives working at the mine in question. Shenlong's management gave me a different story, assuring me that there had never been a union presence at their mine. Most telling was the comment of one of the miners who had been fortunate enough to be off duty on the day of the accident. "What's a union?" he asked.

The problem in China’s mining industry is not a lack of work-safety laws and regulations but a near ubiquitous lack of serious enforcement.

Terms like "legal" and "illegal" when applied to a mining operation usually mean little more than whether or not the mine's owner has paid off the right authorities. In a clear case of letting the fox guard the henhouse, it was revealed that the owner of a mine in Heilongjiang that had collapsed due to egregious over-mining and the local safety inspector who had just given the operation a safety certificate were the same person.

China's leaders are well aware that these disasters threaten both social stability and the nation's energy supply. Yet instead of tackling the problem at its root and allowing coal miners themselves to monitor safety conditions underground, the government seems content merely to issue an ever-growing pile of "urgent directives" which are then dutifully filed away by mine owners and local officials around the country. Dire though the situation is, three steps can be taken immediately that would drastically reduce the needless loss of workers' lives in China's mining industry today.

First, the country's several million coal miners should be allowed and officially encouraged to form their own ad-hoc health and safety committees, with members directly elected by the workforce (as opposed to by management) and playing a 24/7 role in monitoring safety hazards at the coalface. Critical to this frontline monitoring of safety conditions in the mines is that these worker-staffed bodies should have the right to order a work stoppage whenever they — not management — deem that conditions underground have become hazardous. Until China's coal miners are granted the power and authority to monitor the mines in which they work, preventable disasters and appalling loss of life will continue to happen with numbing regularity.

Second, the amounts paid in compensation to bereaved miners' families must be greatly increased. At present, the "going rate" in compensation for a miner killed at work can be as low as around $1,000 in some provinces, and the absolute maximum elsewhere is currently $25,000. (The wide geographical variation says much about the country's haphazard and unjust compensation system for industrial fatalities.) But coal miners are not mere production tools, whose value can be calculated mathematically. They are fathers, brothers and sons, and their deaths leave entire families devastated.

In a court case that China Labour Bulletin, the labor-rights group I founded 10 years ago, is currently seeking to bring in Shanxi Province, the bereaved miners' families will be asking for up to one million yuan in compensation each. A judge handing down a punitive compensation award like this would probably do more to bring about safety improvements in coal mines around China than all the central government's recent "urgent directives" combined.

Third, mine owners and managers who willfully ignore national laws on mine health and safety in the cold pursuit of profit must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Only when mine owners in China are made to realize that miners' lives are no longer cheap and easily disposable assets, and when they themselves face prosecution and jail if they place workers' lives at risk, will they begin taking China's work-safety laws and regulations seriously. The least that the country's coal miners—together with millions of workers in other industries facing similarly acute workplace dangers—are entitled to expect is that the government's maxim of "to get rich is glorious" be tempered by civic responsibility, respect for life, and basic rule of law.

150 mine owners in Guangdong demand Compensation for Destruction of Their Unlicensed Mines after Deadly Coalmine Accident

One hundred and fifty mine owners in Guangdong Province threatened bloody confrontations with the local government if the authorities failed to pay compensation for blowing up their unlicensed mines following a deadly coalmine flood in which killed 123 miners in early August.

“There’ll be blood shed if the government continues to turn a blind eye to our feelings,” said He Tao, representative of more than 150 pit owners from 32 private mines in Lianzhou city. He Tao, who is also a mine owner, said the owners in Lianzhou were never notified that their mines would be blown up, according to a report of the South China Morning Post. “They bombed our mines without any warning and millions of Yuan worth of underground equipment was destroyed,” the mine owner said. In the aftermath of the tragic flood at the Daxing Coalmine in Xingning, Meizhou, on 7 August, the Guangdong provincial government order lower level governments to reorganize and start blowing up about 100 unlicensed mines in Meizhou, Shaoguan and Qingyuan counties on 16 August.

But violent battles broke out between government officials and the mine owners, according to a report in the Hong Kong daily newspaper, Wen Wei Po on 21 August.

The local governments’ action resulted in several thousand people petitioning the city government in Shaoguan in Guangdong. Thirteen people were arrested in Qingyuan, also in Guangdong.

According to another report from the Hong Kong newspaper on 22 August, the owners of another 20 mines in Meizhou took a peaceful approach, hiring lawyers to sue the local governments.

The newspaper reported that many mine owners still possessed explosives, despite government moves to seize their reserves.

Sources: South China Morning Post (23 August 2005), Wen Wei Po (21 August 2005, 22 August 2005)

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