27 Coal Miners Killed and Families Held in Isolation in Jilin Province

China Labour Bulletin Press Release

December 10, 2002

On December 6, 2002, a fire ripped through an illegal single-shaft coal mine in Taonan City in the northeastern province of Jilin, trapping 30 miners underground. The fatal mine – Shaft No.7 – belongs to state-owned Wanbao Coal Mine (Wanbao), and staff at the mine’s office confirmed that as of December 9, 27 bodies had been recovered.

A Wanbao miner explained to China Labour Bulletin that the miners had no way to escape from the shaft. Out of grief and anger, the victims’ families beat up the mine boss on the fatal day, the miner said. He also told CLB that the provincial mining authority sent top officials to the mining company for the setting up of 30 working groups to handle the problems arising from the accident. The local branch of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) was assigned to Group 30.

CLB also confirmed with a Wanbao staff member living close to Shaft No.7 that in order to stave off any collective effort to seek compensation, the victims’ families had been separately put up in local hostels and hospital wards by the local government and mine management.

Apart from safety hazards, Wanbao miners were also hard hit by wage arrears, which prompted the miners into strike actions.

On December 2, all the coal face workers at Shaft No.2 – 400 in all – went on strike demanding for their back pay. The strike is still going on, staff at the Control Office of Shaft No.2 confirmed. He also told CLB that more than 300 striking miners petitioned the officials of the provincial mining authority outside Wanbao Hotel where they were staying.

However, they were only promised an immediate payment of one month’s wages, and probably another 2-month wages before the Chinese New Year, staff at the office of Wanbao Coal Mine said. He also stated that wage arrears were the norm at the mine. All miners were unpaid at some points, and the worst case was 23 months’ wage arrears. He explained that because of this, it was very difficult to undertake “ideological work’ with the miners and victims’ families, and all that they could do was to hand out some food and coal for heating.

The father of one of the striking miners – a retired Wanbao miner -- said, “What we workers here detest most is corruption!” He said that Wanbao miners were owed at least one year’s back pay, while the mine boss was enjoying himself in his luxurious car. He further said that they had been petitioning the provincial government since 1995. “The last time that we petitioned the provincial government was this April. They just said that it’s no use petitioning, even if we go to Beijing. All the complaints will come back to the provincial government and finally back to the mining company”, the retired miner said.

When asked whether they would petition again, the retired miner said that they did not see any hope in it any more, and raising money for the trips to the provincial government was an impossible task now when they had to worry about the next meal everyday.

On the role of the trade union in solving their problems, a miner at Shaft No.2 said that trade union leaders at his mine were appointed by the mine management and had never worked for the miners. They did not trust the trade union at all. But he also stated that without an effective organisation, they had no idea what they should do next with their strike action. “We really want to organise our own trade union, but nobody dares to make the first move”, the miner said.

CLB holds that:

1. The victims’ families have the right to bargain collectively for compensation from the mining company, and it is absolutely abhorrent that they have been held in isolation from each other. This kind of operation, undertaken upon instruction of the mining company and the Jilin provincial mining authority, is totally unacceptable. CLB demands that the central and Jilin provincial governments take immediate steps to stop the operation.

2. The payment of two months' wage arrears promised by the authorities is far from adequate, especially with the coming of winter and Chinese New Year. CLB demands that the central and provincial governments pay at least half of the wage arrears owed to the miners before the Chinese New Year.

3. The ACFTU and its relevant branches should support the striking miners and negotiate with the government and the mining company. CLB demands that they withdraw from the working group operation of isolating the victims’ families, and should instead organise them independently for fair compensation.

4. Wanbao Coal Mine has been eroded by the corrupt mine management in collusion with provincial government officials. The central government must undertake a thorough investigation into the problem, which has left the miners either unpaid or killed in unsafe working conditions.
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