Light at the end of the tunnel for stricken miners

Wang Mingjun is one of hundreds rural labourers who worked in the lead and zinc mines of Ganluo county in central Sichuan during the 1980s and 90s. Wang’s work included drilling and blasting underground, which exposed him to high concentrations of mineral dust. After a fatal accident in 2003, the mines were shut down and taken over by the local government in a so-called safety drive. Wang and his fellow workers were summarily dismissed and sent back to their homes without ever once receiving a medical check-up, as required by law, to assess their health conditions.

Since that date, more than 80 former miners have died of work-related lung disease, and another 160 are struggling to get the medical help and financial compensation they need. Wang himself has third-stage pneumoconiosis, and his doctors say it is too late to clean out his lungs. Despite suffering from severe shortness of breath, in early 2011 Wang managed to talk to CLB Director Han Dongfang about his plight. Han suggested Wang and his colleagues adopt a more aggressive legal strategy in their quest for compensation. They eventually agreed, and now plan to sue the local government in Ganluo for dereliction of duty.

Wang first went down the mines in Ganluo in the 1980s. It was an attractive job, he said, paying 300-400 yuan a month - a good wage at the time. The mining was done by drilling holes into the rock face and placing explosives inside. The lead and zinc ore was then blasted out. The miners used dry borehole drilling, instead of wet drilling, in which water is fed in to suppress the dust, and consequently they were constantly exposed to high concentrations of dust in cramped spaces far underground.

No protection against clouds of mineral dust

Wang worked in a number of different mines near his village, and divided his time between farming and mining according to the seasons:
 

It’s a rural area. We would work in the fields, planting seedlings, and after everything was taken care of we would go and work in the mines, which were quite close to our villages. After working for a month, we would get our money and go back, and later we would go to work underground again.

By the early 2000s, unskilled mineworkers were getting between 1,000-2,000 yuan a month, and skilled workers between 3,000-4,000 yuan. The relatively high pay distracted them from the health risks of dry borehole drilling. “We never thought about things like that,” Wang said. “We never realised how bad the consequences of that could be.”

The mines were on state-owned land, but were privately operated. Work arrangements were casual. The workers had no employment contracts, and no formal training. Instead, drill operators were simply shown the ropes by more experienced workers and left to it. Each underground work area had one drilling machine. They were deep underground at times. “The place was full of dust and smoke. It was pretty bad, you could not see clearly.”

Their only protection was a simple cloth mask costing two or three yuan: “How can that keep the dust out?” Wang asked. Over the two decades he worked in the mines, Wang never once received any safety training. Nor was any kind of inspection ever carried out by local health officials, the local Administration of Work Safety or the labour inspection authorities, as should have been done under law. “The government did not do enough to protect us.” Wang said. “They never said that we needed to have any medical examination or anything like that.”

In November 2003, an air compressor caught fire and exhaust gas was blown into a mine shaft just as a group of miners had begun their shift. Wang said around eight miners died, and the provincial government ordered the local authorities to close the mines and take corrective measures. Operations were suspended, and the miners were sent home. After the mines had allegedly been made safe, they were auctioned off and bought up by five major private mining companies. Most mines are now operational again.

Serious illness

Around the time he left the mine, Wang, who was already experiencing breathing difficulties, had had a medical check-up at his own initiative and expense. He was misdiagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis. Needless to say:
 

Treatment did not help, and in 2010, I fell ill again, with severe bleeding. I went the West China Hospital [the main occupational disease hospital in Sichuan]. They told me I had pneumoconiosis and that the condition was so bad it was no longer possible to clean out my lungs. They asked what company I worked for, and said I should go to them and demand compensation.

I said I was no longer working at the mine. They told us that we should go back to our home areas and get in touch with the authorities there. But the local government always refused to have anything to do with us. They were just as bad as the company, they don't care.

Some local officials, at the village and county level, did urge the ailing miners to get official certification of occupational illness. But they were later dismissed from their posts for offering this advice, Wang said.

Meanwhile, the workers have to support themselves while they wait for compensation. Wang explained that, in addition to the 3,000-4,000 yuan he spent during his ten-day stay in the West China Hospital, he was now having to scrape together at least 700 or 800 yuan per month for medication. He depends on his wife, son and daughter for the money.
 

My wife goes out to work. One of my children decided not to go to college because of my problems and instead went out to work in Zhejiang, learning to be a cook in a restaurant. The other works as a cashier, also at a restaurant in Zhejiang. After they have bought their food and other things they need, they send me the money that is left.

While his wife is out working, Wang is left alone at home to care for himself. He is now so short of breath, he said, that when he gets a cold, he cannot cough up sputum. Even talking on the phone with Han for half an hour was an effort.

Moving forward

In their campaign for compensation and assistance, Wang and his colleagues have faced serious obstacles. The failure of the local government to provide health checks in 2003 before closing down the mines, combined with the lack of hiring contracts in the first place, meant that they could not prove they ever had an employment relationship with the mine operators. Needless to say, those former mine bosses had long since vanished into the night anyway.

“Nevertheless,” Han pointed out that, “because the mines were on state-owned land and were taken over by the government, the state still has legal responsibilities to the miners. The employers may have gone, but the government cannot run away.”

Han stressed that the government had failed in its legal obligation to provide regular check-ups and ensure that dust concentration levels were within legal standards and that the mine operators had installed the necessary equipment. (Article 32 of the Law on Prevention and Treatment of Occupational Diseases stipulates that employers must provide medical examinations prior to, during, and upon leaving employment for workers at risk of occupational disease.) Han noted:
 

Had these things being done, you would have used wet drilling and your health would not have been undermined in this way. The government was culpable on two accounts: failure to carry out inspections of the workplaces, and failure to carry out a health check when the workers were sent home. You can sue the government.

Asked what legal action the miners had taken so far, Wang said that they had only sent reports to higher government officials. “We have submitted documents repeatedly over the last two years, but with no results.” Han advised the miners to stop petitioning the government. “Writing to the government is like not reporting a theft but rather going to look for the thief and trying to persuade him to return your possessions. How can that work?”

Wang said the workers wanted official certification of their occupational illness before approaching a lawyer, but Han recommended that they act now, arguing that pneumoconiosis can only ever be attributable to a dusty workplace, and that there was no need for further documentation before launching legal action.

The workers agreed and now plan to follow in the footsteps of miners from a neighbouring county who on 11 October 2011 filed an administrative lawsuit against the Ganluo County Health Department on the grounds of nonfeasance, failure to comply with statutory duties.

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Han Dongfang's interview with Wang Mingjun was first broadcast in five episodes in March 2011. To read the full Chinese transcript or listen to the audio file of the broadcast please go to the workers’ voices section of our Chinese language website and follow the links.

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