Can 100,000 safety supervisors end coal mine accidents?

In May, Beijing announced it was appointing 100,000 senior coal miners as safety supervisors in the latest attempt to end coal mine disasters in China. This unprecedented measure will be jointly implemented by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) and the State Administration of Work Safety by the end of the year. Zhang Chengfu, the director of Department of Occupational Safety and Health of the ACFTU explained the 100,000 safety supervisors will be designated as safety supervisors and  are expected to  monitor violations of coal mine safety regulations,  report hidden dangers, reflect coal miners' safety concerns and finally and most importantly, order the immediate evacuation of a mine if they believe miners'  lives are in danger. These supervisors will be selected from state-owned and privately-held coal mines, and they will be  licensed and receive a salary.

Appointing workers as occupational safety inspectors is by no means a new policy. In April 1985, the ACFTU issued three documents on the supervision of work safety. In December 2001, the ACFTU revised and reissued these three documents. In which they assert that either a labour inspection and supervision commission or an occupational safety and health monitoring unit should be set up by grass-roots trade unions in all enterprises. The members of these commissions or monitoring units should be workers who are knowledgeable about occupational health and safety issues.

On January 23, 2003, the ACFTU published the "Blue Paper on Chinese Trade Unions' Safeguarding of the Legitimate Rights and Interests of Workers and Staff Members (2002)", which said at that time there were 59,400 full  and part-time workers in  trade unions above the grassroots level across the country, and there were 652,100  workers in grassroots trade unions. The ACFTU and provincial level trade union federations (autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the Central Government) had appointed 2,933 work safety supervisors, established 643,000 grassroots trade union committees for supervision over occupational health safety and there were 2.33 million inspectors of trade union teams in enterprises for occupational safety.

The Shanxi provincial government has announced in late August this year that miners who report to the unions any hidden dangers they uncovered in the coal mines would receive awards ranging from 300 to 3,000 Yuan ($US37 to US$370) if the reports were confirmed, according to Xinhua.

The report, citing a circular jointly issued by the Shanxi Provincial Federation of Trade Unions, the Provincial Work Safety Administration and the Provincial Coal Mine Safety Administration, said the identity of the "whistle-blowers" will be kept confidential to protect them. But the circular added that anyone who offered false information would be prosecuted.

Coal demand has soared in China in line with the rapidly expanding economy, while at the same time, coal mine accidents have occurred more frequently. The appointment of these 100,000 supervisors was done by the central government through the ACFTU system. Since the 1990s, economic reform in China has been focused on the reconstruction of state-owned enterprises and developing private ownership. The institution of a labour inspection and supervision commission or an occupational safety and health monitoring unit was established in the 1980s and was based on public or state ownership. However, this foundation has been seriously undermined with the development of private ownership. According to the State Administration of Work Safety, there were more than 23,500 small coal mines in operation between during 2002 to 2003, accounting for 90% of the total number of coal mines in China. Such small coal mines have become the root of coal mine disasters. Statistics show that 70% of coal mine accidents, including 80% of the major disasters, occurred in these coal mines each year.

The central government has been taking additional measures to stop coal mines accidents in recent years, but to no avail. Reviewing the failure of these measures, we have found that the principal problem is workers' rights have been ignored. For mine owners, the coal mines are only means to make a profit.

China Labour Bulletin has recently published a research report titled "Occupational Health and Safety in China: Labour Rights Lose Out to Government and Business (2003 – 2004)", in which we point out that during the process of ending coal mine accidents, there is an ongoing three-party gambling game among the central authority, local authorities and the owners of small coal mines. However, the coal miners' rights are ignored in this game and thus they play no role in stopping coal mine accidents.

When the government announced the plan to appoint 100,000 safety supervisors, we believed we were witnessing a new dawn and the end of coal mine disasters killing thousands of miners each year, because it seems that the central government and the official trade union have finally realized the important role workers can play in monitoring occupational health and safety.

However, although the dawn has come for us, it does not imply we will have a sunny day. Likewise, the appointment of the 100,000 supervisors does not indicate that mine accidents will stop. While we appreciate that the government for the first time recognizes the important role miners can play in monitoring work safety, we remain skeptical on just how effective this new measure could be.

First, from the beginning of this century, due to the increasing price of coal, the coal mining has become a "sector with excessive earnings". In reporting coal mine accidents, the national media have frequented uncovered the close relationship between government administrators and businesses. It is widely known that local government officials, senior officials in the safety supervisory agencies or their relatives are in fact the owners or investors in these small mines. Colluding with local mafia-style organizations, the owners have made these coal mines their fiefdom. Sometimes, even official safety supervisors would be denied access to these mines. In this case, we doubt whether these newly appointed supervisors, who are only workers, would be able to perform their duties in a normal fashion.

Secondly, in some remote and poverty-striken areas in China, coal mines are the main source of income for local government. Ignoring coal mine safety and allowing illegal mining are two major causes of coal mine accidents. In this situation, the new work safety supervisors will have to deal with the resistance from coal mine owners, and the local governments. Therefore, we doubt if they have enough power to overcome these difficulties.

Finally, setting up trade unions and recruiting migrant workers to become trade union members are the two main hurdles remaining for the ACFTU to promote unionization in the private sector. Since 2002, the ACFTU has been devoted to establishing grass-roots trade unions in privately owned enterprises. It has extremely difficult for the ACFTU to get a breakthrough in promoting these activities in the small coal mines, which are like "fiefdoms". Although the newly appointed 100,000 work safety supervisor can be appointed by local trade unions, it is still difficult for these supervisors to gain support from workers' organizations within the coal mines, where there are no trade unions.

China Labour Bulletin believes the appointment of safety supervisors will indeed fill a gap in coal mine safety in China. However, the effectiveness of this new measure will depend on the central government's success at adjusting the entire coal mine safety system, including the integration of existing laws, policies and government organisations.

Sources: Xinhua News Agency (31 May 2005, 29 August 2005)

7 September 2005

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