Mine bosses quick to countermand government order to go underground

The bosses of a privately-owned coal mine in Guangxi have devised a cunning plan to evade their forthcoming legal obligation to accompany miners underground during work shifts – they have selected and promoted seven junior managers to take their place.

Under new regulations, which will go into effect on 7 October, mine leaders who fail to go underground with miners for the entirety of their shift will be considered “absent without leave” and fined 150,000 yuan. If an accident occurs when no management-level shift leader is present, the enterprise will be fined up to five million yuan – ample incentive for bosses to try to sidestep the law.

And given that the definition of “mine leader” in the regulations is quite vague, it is little wonder the owners of the Hongshan Chaoyang Coalmining Co in Huanjiang county were quick to exploit the loophole by creating new “leaders.”

When the story was reported in the Beijing News on Monday, the website was inundated with outraged comments condemning such blatant “counter-measures” to central government policy, particularly since the policy initiative reportedly came from “Grandpa” Wen Jiabao himself.

But the question has to be asked; are mine owners or senior managers really the best qualified people to supervise mine safety underground?

The rationale behind the government’s plan is obvious: mine mangers are much more likely to pay attention to safety and order an evacuation of the mine in times of danger if their own life, rather than just the lives of the workers, is at risk. But mine leaders are not necessarily trained in mine safety. Indeed all the evidence suggests they pay very little attention to safety and focus purely on extracting as much coal as possible in the shortest period of time, and for the greatest profit – this is their area of expertise.

The main advantage of sending a mine leader underground is that they will have the authority to ensure safety standards are met and order a work stoppage or evacuation when necessary. However, unless they have a high level of training in mine safety, how will they know when a potential hazard is manifest?

Clearly, if mine safety is to be improved, shift supervisors need both the expertise and the authority to ensure that safety really is the number one priority. And in the long term, it will be necessary to establish a stable, well-paid and highly skilled workforce that can constantly monitor safety throughout the mine, and then empower those workers’ representatives to order a work-stoppage or evacuation when needed.

Currently, the vast majority of coal miners are poorly educated, unskilled migrants who have no formal employment contract with the mine and are paid solely on a piece rate basis. This situation needs to be changed, with miners given rigorous and extensive training, wages based on skill levels and safety awareness rather than output, and long-term contracts that will ensure they have a vested interest not only in their own safety but in that of their co-workers and the entire mine community as well.
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