29 September 2003
The latest coal mine accident in China serves once again to highlight the ever widening gap between theory and practice, legislation and implementation in health and safety in China’s mines and the failure of the government and its only sanctioned trade union to end the daily death toll of Chinese miners.
The ACFTU is currently meeting in Beijing and issuing lofty statements on its commitment to improving the working conditions of workers in China and protecting labour rights, while at the same time, as China Labour Bulletin has discovered, miners and their families in Heilongjiang are at the receiving end of the reality of official trade unionism in China.
On 22 September, a gas explosion ripped through a small mine shaft in the Pinggang mining subsidiary of the state owned Jixi Mining Group in Heilongjiang killing eight migrant miners and injuring one other. Although coal mine accidents are reported almost daily from China, this particular case has not made the headlines – possibly because it highlights just how chaotic and mismanaged China’s coal mining industry remains despite the plethora of regulations on mine management and health and safety that have been issued in recent years.
China Labour Bulletin spoke to several officials from the Jixi Group as well as the Pinggang Mine in an attempt to find out who was responsible for overseeing the mine that exploded. Officials from Pinggang informed CLB that they were only responsible for overseeing the main mines in Pinggang and that the ‘chaotic” situation in the small shafts was not their responsibility. We then contacted the Jixi Coal Mine Administration Bureau who is responsible for overseeing the operation of the whole mining area and were told the same; that the smaller shafts were beyond their area of responsibility.
We then attempted to discover who owned or subcontracted the shaft which exploded on 22 September. The Mine offices of both Jixi and Pinggang informed CLB that they did not know who had subcontracted the mine - despite the fact that by law, the Jixi Group is responsible for overseeing the mining operations under its control. However this information was later contradicted when we were informed by a Jixi official who said that the subcontractor had already fled the area and could not be found. The Jixi official did not know how many people were working in the mine at the time of explosion nor who had sub contracted the shaft but they suggested that the mine was illegally operated and had been asked to stop production but hadn't. When the official in question was asked for the identity of the contractor, the official stated that he could not answer these questions.
In a revealing statement, the Pinggang Mine gas level monitoring department informed us that their responsibility was to monitor gas levels in the large sections and not the small mines, despite them being within the responsibility of Pinggang Mine as a whole. They went on to say that the Jixi Mine in general had higher than average gas levels and was therefore particularly dangerous. The fact that no one is actually checking gas levels in these small mines is clearly one of the major causes of the increasing fatalities in China’s mining industry. Unless practical assistance and proper safety monitoring is carried out on the ground at all mines, the safety directives issued by the central government are meaningless – especially if local governments refuse to take responsibility for mines within their own enterprises.
The Jixi mine Group is a major state owned coal mining enterprise in Heilongjiang which has several smaller subsidiaries and within each subsidiary there are several hundred more mines. Although the Jixi enterprise and its subsidiary Pinggang are both state owned, many of the 20 to 30 smaller mines in Pinggang – in some cases single shafts (with or without the legally required ventilation shaft) - are sub contracted to private enterprises or individuals. Pinggang itself employs several thousand mine workers. According to the revelations from the officials, this would mean that all 20 – 30 mines are not monitored for gas nor are their workers protected in any way whatsoever by the union or the state enterprise. Indeed the state enterprise appears not to know nor care what happens in these mines or who operates them.
In an interview, one worker informed CLB that “anyone with money or good relations (“guanxi”) with the General Manager of Pinggang can subcontract a mine” and that most of the workers in these small mines are migrant workers privately employed by the sub contractors. The worker went on to add that whenever there is an accident the smaller shafts are closed down for a while but then reopen and operate under the same hazardous conditions.
In this case, the unwillingness of the officials to divulge who exactly was sub contracting the shaft suggests that either the sub contracted mine was an illegal arrangement – obtained without the official safety checks which should be carried out before a sub contractor can begin operations - or the sub contractor was a local official who had obtained the mine surreptitiously. Indeed the Health and Safety Bureau of the Jixi Group stated that they had no official documents relating to the mine in question.
In interviews, CLB learned that not only is the local branch of the ACFTU – the Jixi Mine trade union - insisting that migrant workers are not their ‘concern” but that several thousand of those workers whom the union “protects” are owed over 40 months of wages and are too scared and dispirited to demand the payment of their legitimately earned salaries.
CLB spoke to the Office Director of the Jixi coal mine bureau trade union about the explosion and its aftermath. Director Li stated that the union is an “industrial union” and is not responsible for migrant workers who are not formally employed by the state enterprise. Since the workers who died in the explosion were all migrant workers from outside the area and were employed directly by the sub contractor, their deaths were of no concern to the union, he said.
Director Li went on to add that “the government does not ask us to look after those workers so we do not have to”, instead the union‘s task is to protect official workers. CLB asked who was responsible for protecting private migrant workers and in response the Director stated that “I don't know, but it is not us”.
One mine worker from Pinggang who is officially employed by the state told us that the union was not protecting even the official workers, but instead was “speaking on the side of the management”. The female worker revealed that she and several thousand other mine workers were owed over 40 months wages which dated back over the last few years. She added that most of the workers had given up trying to retrieve their missing wages after they had blocked roads and protested against the wage arrears on several occasions a few years beforehand and had achieved nothing. The trade union, she stated, was worse than useless.
The ACFTU is currently holding its five yearly Congress. CLB welcomes the recent press releases from the Congress which urge the ACFTU to play a larger role in managing health and safety in workplaces. In particular it welcomes the discussions concerning the practical application of existing legislation on occupation health and safety. However, the ACFTU has on previous occasions also stressed its role in health and safety and yet little has been done. Indeed official figures published on 24 September 2003 reveal that the number of serious coal mining accidents in China and the deaths caused by the accidents in the first eight months of 2003 has increased by 50 percent and 25 percent respectively from the same period in 2002. We encourage the ACFTU to take more of a role in protecting the rights of workers in China’s industry. However, given the lack of independent free trade unions in China and the subservient role of the ACFTU to the Communist party, it is unlikely that any substantial improvement can be made without real progress towards freedom of association in China. The ACFTU has also recently announced that it is now welcoming migrant workers into its membership and yet as this tragic accident shows, most migrant workers remain outside of even the ACFTU’s cursory protection.
The Jixi Mining Group is no stranger to accidents and in June 2002, another gas explosion killed 115 miners. The Deputy Director of the State Administration for Work Safety in China, Zhao Tiechui, admitted in a Conference in July 2002 that the occupational health and safety system in coal mining existed in name only. Zhao used the example of the June accident at Jixi to make his point by revealing that the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety Supervision (SACMSS) had in fact issued six warnings to the group. The warnings stated that its investment in safety systems and operations had fallen and as a result there were serious safety hazards. Yet the group refused to rectify the situation, citing economic difficulties. Just after a state inspection team had finished an inspection and issued yet another notice to halt production, an explosion took place killing 115 miners.
Indeed after the accident, the head of the Jixi Mine safety Inspectorate was reported in the People’s Daily as saying:
It wasn’t just the shaft where the explosion took place that was refusing to follow our instructions and stop production to put things right, it’s every mineshaft in the company. This year we have put out 54 notices … to management operating various coalfaces and shafts to stop production. They have all been ignored.’
China Labour Bulletin investigated the accident in June 2002 at Jixi and recorded several interviews with miners and officials. We learned from miners that the subcontracting of small mine shafts was a major cause of accidents at Jixi as the Jixi Bureau was not involved in the monitoring of health and safety in the private shafts but was simply paying the contractors for the coal they produced. The implementation of safety procedures and equipment was up to the contractors themselves and in most cases, the procedures were ignored. We also learned that most miners were then owed about 20 -30 months of wages and that the union had not attempted to bargain for proper compensation levels for the victims of the accident nor had the Jixi Mine Bureau listened to numerous complaints of high gas levels. One year on, the situation does not appear to have changed at all despite – or perhaps because of - the continuing policies used by the central authorities to control workplace accidents.
To learn more about the 2002 accident please see
To read CLB’s proposals to improve coal mine safety and our recent report on coal mine accidents please see