Close the Mines, Send Off the Miners, Jail the Mine Bosses – What Next?

Monthly News Review, July 2002

China’s mining industry has been haunted by several serious accidents over the past month. The more widely reported ones are:

  • July 4 blast at the private Fuqiang Coal Mine in Jiangyuan County, Baishan City, Jilin Province, killing 39 miners;

  • June 22 blast at Yixingzhai Gold Mine in Fanzhi County, Shanxi Province, killing at least 46 miners, and 35 bodies were dumped at 5 different places along a river bank about 10 kilometres away from the mine;

  • June 20 explosion at state-owned Jixi Coal Mine, Heilongjiang Province, killing 115 miners.

This month alone (July 1-21), the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) recorded 126 coal mine accidents with 329 deaths. Among them, 18 were ‘serious accidents’ killing 78 miners, and 8 were ‘very serious accidents’ with a total of 159 deaths [‘serious accidents’ refer to accidents with 3 deaths or above, and ‘very serious accidents’, 10 deaths or above – Ed].

In a drastic response, the county head of Jiangyuan ordered to blast off all local illegal mines (Mingpao, July 7, 2002). In a similar tone, Fanzhi County government shut down hundreds of local mines and sent home thousands of gold miners (BBC, July 5, 2002).

While the mine bosses of Fuqiang Coal Mine in Jilin and the Yixingzhai Gold Mine in Shanxi have already been put under arrest [the foremen held responsible for the cover up is still at large – Ed.] (Mingpao, July 7, 2002; Xinhua, July 25, 2002), the following comment from a senior Jixi coal miner after the fatal blast on June 20 is telling of what the miners expect of these arrrests:

 CLB, June 22, 2002)

“For sure there will be an investigation, and responsibilities will be affixed; the ventilation shaft section would be blamed, without the slightest doubt. Either a team leader or a section chief would be punished, or even sent to prison in a worse case. Oh, the head of the ventilation control might have to go to prison as well. Then the electrical department could also be blamed, for a broken switch or a short circuit. Whenever an accident happens, the mining bureau must explain it away. Also the safety official in the mine would probably be punished as well. I can recall that officials from the safety department, the ventilation shaft section, and the electrical department were usually found fallible and responsible for these kinds of accidents. (Why the Jixi Mine Blast? – An Interview with a Jixi Coal Miner,

The message is clear: business as usual after some scapegoats are made to round off the whole matter!

As a matter of fact, back in June 2001, the State Council ordered the closure of small coal mines in face of the worsening safety situation in the mining industry. To date, more than 12,000 mines have closed since last May. The hard reality is that the lucrative income at stake has fuelled the opening of new illegal mines. It is not only in the interest of the mine bosses and subcontractors, but also local governments, which survive on tax revenue from mining. As Xinhua reports (July 25, 2002), illegal mines are mostly operated in collusion with county and township officials. On top of it, corruption and lax enforcement of safety laws limit the boundary the arm of justice can reach.

The occasional pledge by the government to jail those responsible for poor safety will only bring more unreported accidents. The appalling cover up of the floods at Longquan Tin Mine in Nandan County, Guangxi Province, which killed 81 miners on July 17, 2001, and the June 22 gold mine blast in Shanxi Province, point to the extreme that the problem can go.

At the root of the safety problem is the fact that the miners are denied the right to protect themselves against hazardous working conditions, and the official trade union is ineffective in safety prevention.

In his press interview on June 30, Shan Chunchang, deputy head of the State Administration of Work Safety, heralded the newly promulgated Work Safety Law [passed on June 29, effective on November 1, 2002 – Ed.] as the legal ‘milestone’ on issues of work safety. Under the new legislation, workers will enjoy the right to refuse working in hazardous conditions. The ACFTU is also given the legal right to intervene in health and safety issues.

Propaganda aside, the new law does not offer any extra legal protection to the miners as the safety clauses have long been codified in various laws and regulations.

According to the ‘Regulation on the Implementation of the Mine Safety Law’ (1996), miners can criticise, report or take legal action against decisions and acts that endanger their health and safety. The same rights are spelt out in the ‘Circular on Exercising the Rights to Safe Production by Coal Miners’ jointly issued by the Bureau of Coalmining and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (1996). The 1996 Circular also stipulates that miners have the right to stop working if their life and safety is at risk under hazardous working conditions.

These rights are reiterated in the Work Safety Law (2002). However, the new law does not seem to offer any blessing to the rural labourers who are driven down the shaft by poverty at home. Worse still, miners are not getting protection from the ‘trade union’ at the pits despite the legal provisions to that effect.

On its legal rights and responsibilities to monitor miners’ safety, in accordance with the Mine Safety Law (1993), the ACFTU can request the mine management to evacuate the miners when their life and safety is threatened. The same right is laid down under the new Work Safety Law.

The recent mine accidents confirm, once again, that the ACFTU has failed to protect the miners. When asked what the trade union at Jixi Coal Mine have done in light of the obvious safety hazards, a miner, who has been working at the mine for 17 years, responded with the following caustic comment:

“[Laughing] Those bastards. What’s the point of talking about it? You should talk to them direct if you really want to know what they are like. The whole bloody thing doesn’t make sense to me. Are those guys really going to help us?” ( Subcontracted Mines Leave No Room for Safety -- From a Jixi Miner (2), CLB, July 6, 2002)

Safety officials are trying to steer safety concerns to the legal arena. While miners should enjoy legal protection to their health and safety, it has to be noted that they are legally forbidden to organise themselves outside the auspice of the ACFTU under the Trade Union Law.

Denied the legal protection to exercise the rights accorded to them, and the basic workers’ right to organise themselves, miners in China are forced to risk their life in the game of Russian roulette, as the senior Jixi miner puts it.


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