MAC: Mines and Communities

World's deadliest coal mines power China's progress

Published by MAC on 2003-07-07

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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