Gas explosion at Fushun’s Mengjiagou coalmine kills 25 miners -A victim’s wife is beaten and hospitalized by company security gu

3 April 2003/>


“I will do
anything and go anywhere for justice after this – even if it costs me my life”.

dead miner’s father, speaking to CLB yesterday.)

Action Express No. 23

Less than two weeks after the massive explosion at Mengnanzhuang coalmine in Shanxi province, which killed 72 out of 87 miners, another disastrous coalmine explosion has occurred – again with heavy loss of life – this time in the northeastern province of Liaoning. On Sunday, 30 March, an
explosion caused by a build-up of toxic gases ripped through the Mengjiagou coal mine near Fushun/>/> city in Liaoning/>/>, killing at least 25 miners.

Over the past four days, China Labour Bulletin has spoken directly with numerous local villagers, victim’s families and others at Mengjiagou, including an official from the local All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). These interviews reveal yet again how basic health and safety standards are being widely ignored by Chinese mining officials and managers, in the single-minded pursuit of profits and at a growing expense of human life.

Among the main points that CLB has learned:

-- The Mengjiagou coalmine has long been known to be unsafe by the miners themselves;

-- No local officials (including representatives of the ACFTU) have as yet visited the bereaved families to offer sympathy and condolences, despite official claims to the contrary;

-- The families of the dead are being approached at the mine shaft entrance by management and asked to sign a “take it or leave it” agreement to accept 45,000 yuan in compensation for each dead relative;

-- There is no functioning union branch at the mine, and working conditions there seriously contravene national labour

-- A large group of security officials at the mine yesterday physically attacked and injured both the wife of a miner who was killed in the blast and also her elder brother, when they approached the mine’s management office to inquire about compensation for her husband’s death.

A community

According to our informants, the electricity supply at the mine failed approximately ten minutes before the explosion on 30 March, thereby disabling the gas extraction equipment. Attempts were made to reconnect the electricity, but no precautionary evacuation of the workforce was undertaken.

The wife of Li Hongchang, a dead miner, told CLB that her husband and others had frequently complained about the smell of gas pervading the mine, but that mine managers had simply ignored these complaints. In response to a question from CLB, she said: “Lack of safety? – Certainly! There was too much gas down there, but the families all know that when the detection equipment said the gas levels were too high, the boss would just tell the miners to keep on working!” This woman has lost not only her husband, but also her father and her uncle in the mine blast, and her nephew is still critically ill with his injuries. She is now the sole breadwinner for her family of two children.

In another conversation, a 68-year-old man wept as he described to CLB the loss of his son, Zhang Fu’an, who had been supporting a young family and both his parents. Zhang Fu’an and his family were local villagers from Mengjiagou who had been forced off the land to work in the coal mine, and yet Zhang, who had worked at the mine for five years, was still classified by the management as a “temporary worker” linshi gong). Another miner interviewed told CLB that he had been working at the mine for three years as a temporary worker.
Many Chinese coalminers, especially in the restructured state owned mines, are employed as temporary workers with renewable short-term contracts that leave them exposed to job insecurity and low or non-existent benefits despite many
years of work

One miner who survived the disaster told CLB he was several hundred metres away from the blast when it occurred, working on the coal transport system underground. Although deeply shaken by the experience, he said that he would have no option but to go back down the mine again once it reopens. “With no other work in the area and no farmland left, I have no choice about it.” In addition, CLB attempted to speak with the families of miners who were seriously injured in the coalmine explosion and who are now being treated in a local hospital. But a doctor at the hospital refused to let us do so, giving as his reason: “The families might say something inaccurate or not tell you the truth about what happened.”

A bereaved wife
assaulted for asking about compensation

On 2 April, CLB talked with another woman, Yan Mingfang, who lost her husband in the 30 March explosion. That morning, she told us, she and her elder brother, who had been injured in a separate accident at the same mine three months ago, went to the mine’s management office to ask for a compensation package that would cover both her own bereavement and also her brother’s injuries. She waited downstairs while her brother went up to the company’s office to discuss the matter. Ten minutes later, a group of about ten security guards (wearing police uniforms, and reportedly recruited by mine officials directly from the local Public Security Bureau) emerged and told her: “Come upstairs and carry your brother away!” When she asked them what was going on and protested that she wasn’t strong enough to carry her brother away, the security guards began beating and kicking her, stamping on her body when she fell over. (The son of another miner killed in the 20 March explosion at Mengjiagou has separately provided CLB with his own eyewitness account of this beating, and he confirms that the security guards were all wearing police uniforms.)

Mrs. Yan has now been hospitalized with injuries to her head, back and legs. According to a nurse at the local clinic where she is being treated, “She has extensive bruising and she’s unable to walk. She may have internal injuries as well, but we don’t have the equipment to test for this.” No information is currently available on the condition of her elder brother – as of late yesterday afternoon, the family and other concerned villagers were reportedly too frightened to make enquiries on this count. But the security guards’ instructions to Mrs. Yan to “come upstairs and carry [him] away” suggest that the brother probably received an even harsher beating than she did.

When CLB contacted an official at the Mengjiagou coalmine office about this incident, he stated: “This is all just a rumour. Some of the victims’ families are simply trying to make trouble [nao shi].” In an attempt to further substantiate this claim that the bereaved families were up to no good, the same official added: “Some of the families are now even planning to launch a collective campaign to petition the higher authorities!” When CLB asked him why he thought such an action would constitute “trouble-making,” the official replied: “I don’t have an answer to that question.”

In a related development, China Labour Bulletin has learned from several miners’ families in the Mengjiagou area that over the past couple of days an official from the mine has been approaching bereaved relatives in the vicinity of the mineshaft entrance and pressuring them to sign a “contract” (xie yi) specifying their acceptance of a one-off compensation payment of 45,000 yuan for each miner killed in the accident. According to the contract, this sum includes both the families’ funeral expenses and also a supporting payment of 3,000 yuan for each dependant relative. According to CLB’s information, the great majority of the families affected have refused to sign this document; indeed, only one family has reportedly so far signed, and they are said to be relatives of the mine manager. One elderly father of a dead miner, expressing to CLB his disgust at the proffered compensation contract, stated: “I will do anything and go anywhere for justice after this – even if it costs me my life”.

The arbitrary nature of the compensation offer made can be seen from an article published recently on the China Daily website. According to the article, relatives of the miners who died in a similar explosion at the Mengnanzhuang coalmine in Shanxi/>/> province on 22 March are still in negotiations with the authorities over compensation, and they have been offered the sum of 80,000 yuan per deceased relative. By contrast, in this latest mining disaster at Mengjiagou, the bereaved families are being pressured by mine officials into signing up for a much lower amount of compensation, and in the form of a final, one-off payment requiring them to relinquish any other applicable rights. (These include province-wide commitments made by the Liaoning/>/> government to provide, in cases of workplace accident deaths, for the financial maintenance of all dependant children until they reach adulthood and for elderly parents for the rest of their lives.)

Abusive health and
safety conditions at the Mengjiagou mine

Liaoning/>/>class’s Fushun/>/> municipality, where the Mengjiagou Coalmine is located, is an area containing dozens of coalmines and one that in recent years has seen numerous protests by mine workers against mass worker lay-offs, lack of provision for retirement pensions and other related issues. In 1998 and 1999, for example, miners blocked the railway line and roads through Fushun/>/> to protest against the non-payment of pensions; and in March 2002, around 3,000 local miners staged public demonstrations over inadequate redundancy payments. The severe economic cutbacks in China/>/>’s coalmine industry, combined with the high rate of unemployment in the northeast of China/>/> generally, means that many miners are forced to accept increasing wage reductions and cutbacks on essential safety equipment and mine maintenance if they want to continue working.  In many cases, local government officials have colluded with mine managers to allow coalmines to continue operating despite severely sub-standard levels of health, safety and wage provision.

The Mengjiagou mine has been owned by the local township government since the 1980s, but in 2000 the management of the mine was reportedly subcontracted out to an entrepreneur from Jilin/> Province/>/>. It is operating on land expropriated from the local community as the mine gradually expanded over the years, and for many former farm workers the coalmine is now the only feasible place of employment.

Most of the Mengjiagou Coalmine miners are reportedly working with no medical insurance or pension plan, although the management has apparently given them an oral pledge that in the event of an accidental injury at the mine the management will pay for the cost of medical treatment; any other illnesses or accidents are not covered. This denial of medical cover is contrary to the stipulations of Article 73 (2) of the PRC Labour Law. Furthermore, all of the Mengjiagou miners, and families of the deceased, with whom CLB has spoken over the past few days said that they or their relatives had never received a basic medical check-up throughout their employment at the mine. One elderly miner confirmed with that in his 25 years of working at the mine he had never been given a medical examination of any kind. He added: “The only miners who get medical check-ups are those who have relatives among the mine officials.” According to the 1983 "Regulations on Safety in the Building and Mining Industries, all miners must be given regular health checks. (Article 148 of the Regulations states that miners should undergo a medical check-up once every two years; where it is suspected that an employee has contracted a lung illness - the most frequent ailment among miners - the employee is to receive an annual medical examination and medical files must be kept up to date; such tests should include an X-ray, and medical treatment must be given where necessary.)

Safety training at the Mengjiagou mine also appears to be given a very low priority by the mine’s management. Only one of the miners with whom CLB has spoken about the 30 March disaster
could recall any form of safety training at the mine; he vaguely remembered that a session of this nature was held roughly once a year, but he could recall no details about it.

The miners and their families with whom CLB talked also said that the great majority of workers at the Mengjiagou coalmine work eight-hour shifts every day of the week, with no rest days being taken other than on the annual Spring Festival holiday. Although this type of continuous work without rest days is illegal under the PRC Labour Law, such excessive working practices are commonplace in Chinese industry. Among other things, the tiredness brought on by continual work means that workers are unable to respond quickly in the event of serious danger at the workplace. (Article 36 of the Labour Law states that employees shall work for no more than eight hours a day and for no longer than 44 hours a week on average. Article 38 adds that the “employer shall guarantee that its labourers have at least one day off a week”; and Article 40 states that the employer shall grant rest days to workers on New Year's Day, Spring Festival, International Labour Day, National Day and various other occasions.)


The invisible AFCTU


All the miners or their families at with whom CLB has spoken believe that there is no trade union branch at the mine. However, when we called the local Xinbin County’s ACFTU trade union office, we were told by a Mr. Qu, a standing committee member of that office, that there had been an active union branch at the mine until it was sub-contracted out to private management several years ago, and he asserted that the mine’s union branch did still exist. According to Mr. Qu, however, after the new management took over, the local ACFTU branch “was merged with the coalmine’s management office and the [Communist] Party committee.” The three organizations, he added with no sense of embarrassment, “now share the same desk.” This stark example of the lack of separation between enterprise management, the political authorities and the trade union serves to highlight a more general dilemma in China/>/>: that the ACFTU, as the only government-permitted “trade union,” in practice usually has more in common with factory management and the Communist Party than with the workers whom it is supposed to represent. 

Mr. Qu also told us that the county union had been carrying out “extensive after-care work shanhou gongzuo) at the coalmine since the 30 March explosion. The main purpose of this activity, he explained, was to carry out “ideological and political work” among the affected families, in the aim of minimizing the risk that they might engage in any “disturbances” or “trouble making” (nao shi). However, not only have none of the bereaved families contacted by CLB expressed any knowledge of the existence of a local ACFTU branch at the mine, but also
they all report having received no visits from locals officials of any kind – ACFTU or otherwise – expressing official sympathy or condolences since the time of the Mengjiagou mine disaster five days ago.


This is despite urgent instructions issued in recent days by the National Coalmines Inspection Bureau and by the PRC State Council Office, in direct response both to this latest coalmine disaster and to the one that occurred in Shanxi’s Mengnanzhuang coalmine on 22 March, that special attention must be paid to conducting effective “after-care work” among the relatives of those injured or killed in such accidents. Point 3 of both directives orders local officials to “coordinate closely with the local government in diligently carrying out after-care work” in the aftermath of such accidents, “in order to safeguard social stability.”


The State Council Office directive, issued on 26 March, also instructed that a thorough re-inspection of safety standards in all industrial enterprises be carried out throughout the country. During 2002, however, China/>/>’s State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) carried out a year-long, and virtually identical, nationwide safety inspection exercise in Chinese industry, but this appears to have had very little practical effect in terms of
improving basic safety for the workforce, especially in China/>/>’s
mining industry.


According to Han Dongfang, CLB’s director: “What is most urgently needed now is for the government to ensure that there is proper enforcement and implementation of the existing laws and directives on mine safety. Also, the legal authorities must demonstrate unequivocally that any officials who disregard the applicable regulations will be severely punished by law.” Han added: “A repeat exercise by the government of mere ‘inspection’ measures that have hitherto proved ineffective is clearly no substitute for a genuine law-enforcement crackdown on mine managers whose contempt for existing safety laws constantly places workers’ lives at risk.”


A striking feature of the recent flurry of high-level directives and circulars addressing the appalling death toll in China/>/>’s mines during February and March of this year is that none of these official documents has assigned any role at all to the ACFTU in the management, supervision or promotion of coalmine safety. The country’s solely permitted trade union is simply not mentioned in any of these various documents. This fact underscores the increasingly marginal role currently being played by the ACFTU on China’s industrial relations scene, and it suggests that even the government now sees the official union as having little or no significant role to perform in the crucial areas of workers’ health and safety – or indeed, in the much vaunted “after-care work” among victims families.

To listen to CLB’s conversations with some of these miners (in Chinese) please go to: (31 March, and 1 and 2 April)

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