China Labour Action Express No. 18 (2003-02-26)

In the afternoon of 24 February 2003, a huge explosion rocked the Muchonggou coal mine in Shuicheng County, Guizhou province, killing up to 40 miners and injuring scores more, according to CLB sources.

This latest explosion comes just days after another mine explosion in Shanxi province which killed 14 people.

The explosion at Muchonggou mine is not the first there – a very similar gas explosion occurred on 27 September 2000, killing as many as 162 miners out of a total workforce of about 241. The explosion was widely reported in the media at the time and according to the China Youth Daily, the Muchonggou mine had long been notorious for its mismanagement, its ailing finances and the frequent breakdown of electrical equipment.

The explosion on 24 February shows that there has been little or no progress in resolving the safety problems in the mine despite a period of almost two years.

Official sources state that in this week’s explosion at the mine, 35 miners were killed, four remain missing and 18 others have been injured – four of them seriously. However since learning of the accident, China Labour Bulletin has uncovered additional important details and we believe that at least 30 miners have been injured, at least ten of whom are in a serious condition.

A hospital doctor told CLB that he had received instructions that no injured miner was to be allowed to talk to the media about the incident; the director of the hospital assured CLB that the situation was under control but added that CLB could not speak to any of the victims. However, CLB managed to interview one injured worker at the hospital who said that although he was standing 500 metres away from the blast, he lost consciousness and received chest injuries from it.

“This unconscionable silencing of accident victims demonstrates the Chinese authorities’ lack of transparency and their fear that the outside world will learn the true scale and causes of the Muchonggou disaster,” said Han Dongfang, CLB’s Director. ”The authorities must allow the miners, and also the families of the dead and injured, to express their dismay at this appalling waste of life and to provide advice on how such accidents can be prevented in future. Without the direct involvement of the workers themselves, there is little prospect of an end to the continual cycle of explosions and deaths that afflict the Chinese mining industry,” said Han.

The worker interviewed also told CLB that he believed the cause of the mine was a faulty connection in the safety pipe for extracting toxic gases from the mineshaft. He said that although the health and safety equipment installed in the mine was adequate, it was not maintained or checked properly. He went on to explain that the coal mine’s former manager had been subcontracted to run the mine, but since the new management had taken over, health and safety standards had further deteriorated and the pursuit of profit had become the overriding concern. According to reports at the time, the September 2000 explosion at the same mine was also caused by faulty ventilation pipes and associated electrical equipment.

China Labour Bulletin believes that the root of the problem lies in the “reform” of the coal mining industry in recent years, and in the current managerial system whereby mine managers are subcontracted to run the mines on a short-term profits basis and at the expense of basic worker safety. Despite well-publicized attempts at official regulation, hundreds of mines throughout China remain effectively unsupervised and are, in effect, disasters waiting to happen.

The continuing impunity enjoyed by mine managers in this regard seems to have encouraged an acceptance of the fact that a miner’s life is now cheap: less than the price of proper safety equipment. Official compensation for the loss of a family member remains low – and no compensation at all is reportedly being offered to those injured in this week’s explosion at Muchonggou. China Labour Bulletin once again emphasizes the urgent need for the Chinese government to actively involve workers in the creation of health and safety committees that would help put an end to the appalling conditions underground.

Also, CLB has learned that the Muchonggou miners currently work at least 12 hours a day and have only three or four rest days a month. This is in clear contravention of the Labour Law of the People’s Republic of China, which gives the working day as 8 hours, with no more than 44 hours a week total including overtime, and one day’s rest a week minimum. Moreover, it suggests that no effective steps have been taken by the Muchonggou mine management, since the time of the previous disaster there in September 2000, to remedy what was officially identified at that time as having been one of its prime causes. For according to a post-mortem report on the September 2000 explosion published on an English-language news website sponsored by the Sichuan provincial government,

“Because of mismanagement, electrical equipment at the Muchonggou mine frequently burnt out, cutting power to ventilators, the China Youth Daily reported. The mine’s lighting system also had many problems, it said.

Efforts by the mine to maintain profitability also contributed to the death toll, the newspaper suggested.

Mines regularly worked overtime to meet quotas, with shifts sometimes lasting more than 12 hours, the newspaper said. It said the number of victims could have been reduced by at least a third if they had not been working overtime.”

Similar official disregard of the Labour Law, and of other regulations designed to protect the safety of workers, is endemic throughout China and contributes substantially to the high number of accidents and fatalities occurring within Chinese industry as a whole. Despite a reported drop in the number of fatalities in other industries, according to official figures the number of fatalities in the coal mining industry nationwide has actually increased in recent years: from 5,798 in 2000, 5395 in 2001, and up again to 5791 in 2002.

CLB also telephoned the Muchonggou mine’s trade union office and was told that no union staff were currently there, and that anyway the mine disaster was not being handled by them, but by city officials from a local city, Bijie. This lack of any local union involvement in the mining tragedy is yet another sign that the All China Federation of Trade Unions lacks the competence, the authority and even the will to promptly assist its own members at such times.

China Labour Bulletin calls upon the Chinese government to end forthwith its longstanding suppression of the fundamental rights of workers to organize themselves freely and to create independent trade unions. Only when genuinely free and representative trade unions are established will the rights of workers in China be fully protected. The government must guarantee workers both the right to be heard and the right to organize in defence of workplace safety, and it must ensure that those responsible for such accidents –whether directly or indirectly – are brought to justice.

At Muchongguo mine in September 2000, according to a Reuters report, many of the victims were brothers – in some cases two or three from a family. In a distressing similarity, CLB has learned that at least one of the victims of this week’s tragedy had already lost a brother in September 2000. The current management of mining in China is such that the industry has become one where loss of life is almost an everyday occurrence – but it need not be. “These tragedies are man-made and avoidable,” said Han Dongfang.

For more information on coal mining accidents please see, China Labour Bulletin, Monthly News Review, December 2002: "Taking Stock" of coal mine deaths in China

For information on the 27 September explosion in Muchonggou see: Mining Calamity

For more information or an interview please call China Labour Bulletin: +852 2780 2187
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