China’s coal mines are the most dangerous in the world. Not only do thousands of miners die each year in accidents, hundreds of thousands of others suffer from pneumoconiosis, or “black lung disease,” an incurable illness caused by coal dust inhalation. Pneumoconiosis is prevalent in small-scale (often unlicensed) mines with inadequate ventilation and a lack of protective equipment. Moreover, it is precisely these small-scale mines, owned by or intrinsically linked to local government officials, that are least likely to pay pneumoconiosis sufferers the work-related illness compensation they are entitled to by law.
As CLB has demonstrated in its research report Bone and Blood: The Price of Coal in China, mine operators and local government officials across China have created an almost impenetrable network of collusion that allows mine bosses to operate outside the law, and prevents the central government’s mine safety policies from being enforced.
In April 2008, CLB Director Han Dongfang interviewed retired miner Xiao Huazhong and a local industry insider about the coal business in Sichuan’s Qu county and the ruthless exploitation of miners by unscrupulous bosses. Now in his 60s, and suffering from third-stage pneumoconiosis, Xiao brings up blood, has trouble eating and cannot walk even short distances without coughing and panting. He cannot work, has no medical insurance and no compensation from his former employer, a coal mine boss named Liao Xing’an who is also a member of the local People’s Congress and deputy head of the county federation of industry. Unable to afford hospital treatment, he whiles away his final years in his home village in poverty, his children his only support.
After Han’s interview, CLB adopted Xiao’s case as part of its Labour Rights Litigation Program and is seeking more than 70,000 yuan in work-related illness compensation through the courts, including a disability subsidy of 12,000 yuan, and a one-off allowance of 9,600 yuan, and 20 months living expenses totaling 48,208 yuan, plus continuing medical treatment costs. The trial began on 11 September 2008 at the Qu County People’s Court with the exchange of evidence.
“I don’t have any special demands,” Xiao told Han. “All I want is that things be done by the book, as laid down in the statutes. That’s all.”
Xiao’s home and former place of work is the village of Longtan, near Dazhou in the far east of Sichuan province. It is an area of small private coalmines, each with some 20 to 50 workers, who move from pit to pit, going where help is needed. According to the industry insider (identified as Zhi in the interview), the pits are mostly run by local entrepreneurs with good official connections: “Formerly, all of these mines would have been shut down [under a national safety crackdown], but local officials protect them. They have the Public Security in their pockets too. Applications to open a new shaft are usually approved and the operators just go and clear the ground themselves. Some of them run their own pits, and others subcontract the coal-digging. Most of the mineworkers are rural migrants, and some have been there for 10 or even 20 years.”
Zhi explained that pneumoconiosis and silicosis (caused by inhalation of silica dust) “affect many people in these mines. I’ve heard people have died. But even those who show the symptoms don’t bother getting themselves checked. They don’t understand how to deal with these things, and so they cannot get occupational illness certification. And the boss doesn’t help them.”
Getting Started in the Business
Xiao was one of these rural workers, active in the mines of Qu county for over ten years. Born in 1948, he was already middle-aged when he was attracted by the coalmining industry, which boomed as the economy took off. He worked in two pits operated by Liao Xing’an, a former mineworker turned entrepreneur, as a coalface worker and a “deputy technology safety officer.” Xiao began working for Liao in September 1995, at the nearby Shuangtu Shiyan mine, which Liao had just opened. Shuangtu Shiyan was a new venture for Liao, who reportedly got his start as a mine-owner by taking on a former state-owned pit as a subcontractor. As Liao and Xiao grew up in the same area, Liao wrote his old acquaintance a letter through a mutual friend asking him to come to Shuangtu Shiyan. Xiao already had experience in the mines, and knew “a bit more about the technology of it than most do. Liao asked me to come and help him. So I did.” For his technical safety duties, Xiao was paid an extra 150 yuan a month. The rest of his wages came from piece-rate coal-digging. Earning over 1,000 yuan a month, Xiao thought he was doing all right.
In 1999, the Shuangtu Shiyan mine was sold, and Xiao stayed on under the new boss. However, Liao soon found he could not do without Xiao and cajoled him into joining him at his new venture, the Workers and Peasants coal mine, a former state-owned colliery so named because some of the workers were kept on with their formal employment status intact, while the others were rural migrants. At this mine, Xiao continued in his dual capacity as safety officer and coal digger until leaving the mines altogether in 2002, feeling he was getting too old for the business.
According the Law of the Peoples Republic of China on Prevention and Control of Occupational Diseases, workers should be given a health check on leaving their jobs by their employers. But Xiao never received any medical check-ups. “I just left the mine, of my own accord. I didn’t raise these things with the boss. I haven’t worked underground since.”
Han: Did all the mineworkers working underground feel like this when their health broke down and they could not go on, did they just blame themselves and walk off the job?
Xiao: Yes, that’s how it was. Underground, you are the lowest of all creatures. We just didn’t know about things like this.
The Consequences of Ten Years in the Mines
In the second half of 2002, Xiao noticed something was wrong with his health. “I didn’t know what was going on. I had difficulty walking. I was panting. .. I felt asthmatic, breathless.” He was initially misdiagnosed with tuberculosis and wasted a lot of money on worthless cures. It was only in March 2007, five years after leaving the mines, that Xiao finally went to a reputable hospital for a check-up. The doctor told him he had a black lump in his lungs the size of a bowl and referred him to Sichuan Provincial People’s Hospital. He was told he had a work-related illness, and was referred to West China Hospital in Dazhou for appraisal. Tests showed Xiao had third-stage pneumoconiosis and that he should be hospitalized. However, Xiao could not afford the hospital fees and had no choice but to return home to Longtan and hope for the best. “His situation is now very severe. He can’t make a living, even in his village. Neither can his wife. Both are dependent on their children, who send them a few hundred yuan a month,” said Zhi.
With an official certification of his work-related illness from West China Hospital, Xiao should have been entitled to compensation. But when Xiao approached the Labour Bureau, he was informed that “too much time has passed” for any kind of action to be taken. Eighteen months to two years would still have been okay, but now it was too late, they said. The Labour Bureau also claimed that Xiao had worked at another mine, Han Tianba, thereby clouding the waters as to Liao Xing’an’s liability. However, Xiao is adamant that he only visited that mine and did not actually work there. Other authorities have also been of little help. A petition by a supporter to the Sichuan Province Safety Bureau was referred down to the Dazhou city branch, which confirmed the facts of the case and called Liao to give him a lecture on his responsibilities under the Law on Prevention and Control of Occupational Diseases. It went unheeded. “Some comrades came from the Dazhou Safety Bureau to visit Xiao at home,” said Zhi. “They saw how poor he was, how shabbily he and his wife lived, and how sick he had become. They saw he had an incurable illness and nowhere to turn to. Everybody was moved. They told the village authorities to take care of him. But nothing happened. Nothing ever happens at the grassroots level. They just dragged their feet.”
Xiao has not been able to get directly in touch with Liao, and the authorities were likewise unable to get Liao to hand over Xiao’s health report for the period when he worked in the mines, or even officially confirm that Liao was boss of the Shuangtu mine between 1995 and 1999. Zhi claimed that Liao refuses to take responsibility for former miners’ health problems. “His attitude is that once miners have left his mines, all relations are severed,” he said.
In October 2007, together with Zheng Jixing, another Qu county miner with his own grievance against Liao, Xiao’s son attempted to petition the authorities in Beijing. They chose a sensitive time, the 17th Party Congress. “They arrived on 14 October, the day before the Congress began on the 15th,” said Zhi. “Because it was a Sunday, and it was the first time they had been to Beijing, they thought they’d do some sight-seeing. In Tiananmen Square they were stopped by police - not Beijing police, but Sichuan police. The province had sent plainclothes officers up to the capital to stop Sichuan people from making petitions during the Congress.” Asked how the police knew that Xiao’s son and his companion were from Sichuan, Zhi replied, “They could tell from their accent. Near Tiananmen Square, if you are carrying a bag, the police will ask to look inside. In that way, they can see whether you have petitioning documents, and hear how you speak.”
Xiao’s son and Zheng Jixing were taken back to Sichuan by Qu County police. They were accused of “blackening the name of Qu” and fobbed off with promises of action by County Party secretary Deng Yuhua - promises that again proved empty. Xiao’s son additionally approached the provincial Bureau of Work Safety, All-China Federation of Trade Unions and Labour Bureau, even the mayor of Dazhou, but to no avail. All he got was a warning that “the waters run very deep in Qu county.”
Later Xiao’s son, an employee at the Sichuan Economic Daily News, was detained by police for five days for the offence of “swindling by false pretenses,” after he wrote an article for the evening paper detailing the problems faced by his father and other mineworkers at Liao Xing’an’s coal mines. The charges were fabricated – and the detention simply a warning from the county government to leave the issue alone.
The Big Man of Qu County
Industry insiders say the reason Xiao has so far failed to get help or even serious official attention for his plight, and the reason why the “waters in Qu county run so deep,” can be summed up in one name - Liao Xing’an. The former mineworker-turned-entrepreneur, is the “big man” in Qu county, said Zhi. “Nobody dares get in his way, and nobody can do anything.” In addition to employing over 400 people at three mines and serving as vice-president of the Qu County Federation of Industry and Commerce, he is a Dazhou Municipal and Qu County People’s Congress deputy. “Liao has both money and power,” said Zhi. “In Dazhou, top officials have taken care to have a good relationship with him. Liao knows how to get what he wants.”
Liao has reportedly been in the coal business for over twenty years, and has a reputation for being both ruthless and cunning. Zhi alleged that when Liao’s business was in difficulty a few years back, he took out large bank loans to meet his mounting costs. Unsure that he would ever be able to repay them, and keen to avoid creditors pursuing his family if he were to die in debt, Liao had his paternal relationship with his children formally severed through court process, having already divorced his wife. According to Zhi, his family members now have no connection with his businesses and are beyond the reach of potential creditors. Using these loans he was able to greatly expand his operations when business conditions improved.
Zhi explained how Liao allegedly dealt with mine safety inspections: “I hear the mineworkers talking amongst themselves. They say that when provincial safety inspectors come, he hands out protective face masks to make sure he meets the standards, and at the same time make it more difficult for the men to talk with the inspectors. When they have gone, he recovers all the masks and takes them away, not letting the workers wear them.” Asked whether the miners had approached the inspection authorities and reported the deception, Zhi replied, “No, no. These are all migrants. How would they know about things like that? Migrant workers can earn 3,000 or 4,000 yuan a month in the coal mines. When they get that much money, they don’t care. Their attitude is, as long as I get out of here alive, it’s okay.”
Very few workers at Liao’s mines have employment contracts, and when problems arise, it is alleged that he covers them up. For example, Zhi said, in 2005, Liao’s subcontracted Daxia mine suffered a major flood. “The place was under water for two or three months. It took four pumps several months to clear it. All the workers were laid off. Normally, things like that should be reported to provincial inspectors, but he did not. Nobody knew, so he said nothing. There was no media coverage either.” In this incident, nobody got killed. But an accident at the same mine on 19 January 2007, left one worker dead and another severely injured. During underground soil removal, a vat of earth weighing two or three tons tipped over and crushed one worker to death. Another, Tang Zijie, had his leg broken.
Instead of reporting the incident, Liao allegedly ordered the other five workers who were underground at the time to say that the victim had collapsed and died from a relapse of a pre-existing illness. To buy the widow’s cooperation, he inflated the standard rate of compensation of 200,000 yuan to 270,000 yuan, allegedly telling the dead miner’s widow, “If anybody comes to ask you about this accident, you must say that the guy was sick, and that his sickness suddenly struck while he was underground.”
According to Tang Zijie, mine management did not dare to report the truth because it was applying for approval to begin new mining operations next year. There had already been one work-related fatality, in April 2006, and they feared this second accident would scupper the application, perhaps leading to the failure of the mine and mass redundancies. In total, Zhi estimated that over a hundred people working in Liao Xing’an’s coal mines volunteered the same lie when the media began to show interest. Even Tang, who had himself been severely injured, kept silent at the time. The story concocted for him was that he had been hit by a loose wagon as he tried to help the deceased. Tang said he spent two months in hospital before being ordered home by Liao to nurse his leg alone without any additional financial assistance.
Cheating the Workers out of Compensation
Zheng Jixing, who accompanied Xiao’s son to Beijing, suffered a shoulder injury at the Daxia mine in November 2005, when a roof support fell. Zheng’s injury was certified as Grade 7 (which by law requires 12 months salary in compensation) but Liao allegedly only paid out at Grade 8 (ten months salary). Zheng did not take it lying down. He and his wife complained to the county government and confronted Liao at the government building, demanding that Liao pay his living expenses and medical treatment costs. “At the time, a lot of people were standing around,” Zhi said. “Because he is a local deputy, Liao is sensitive about face, said he said, ‘Okay okay, you don’t have to go on.’ If you come down to my mine, I’ll make a phone call and you can pick up 1,000 yuan.”
Zheng hired a lawyer, from Tianjin, but Liao allegedly argued with him and said he would not pay anything unless Zheng got rid of him. In the end, Liao’s colleague - the Longtan village Party committee secretary - and the township chief persuaded Zheng to accept the Grade 8 payment and be happy with that. In a third incident cited by Zhi, an injured worker called Liao Yongan was fobbed off with 3,000 yuan, and that only after his uncle, another village-level Party secretary, made a personal intervention with Liao.
Zhi claimed that after mine accidents Liao routinely swindled insurance companies and cheated workers out of their compensation. In Zheng’s case, Zhi said, Liao had somehow got hold of his medical records, enabling him to collect the insurance payout himself. Similar tactics were used with Tang and Liao Yongan. When injuries occur, Zhi said, Liao manipulates the grades ensuring victims get only a pittance, and then pockets the full insurance payout himself. When fatalities occur, “he fakes documentation, orchestrates false testimonies, hides real identities, and then swindles the insurer,” Zhi alleged.
“This guy is untouchable,” said Zhi. “He just brushes people off. He has everything covered. There is no point in running after him, you just waste your money on travel expenses. Workers know that they are being cheated over compensation when they get injured, with Liao knocking a grade off their entitlement. They all know it’s unfair but they feel powerless. It’s been going on like this for ages. They think, at any rate, we get a little bit, and that’s better than nothing.”
Zhi revealed that Liao’s nickname among the workers was “Liao Shanjiang” (Castrator Liao). “He’s a real tough guy, he talks in a rough way. Some people, like Zheng and Xiao, can stand up to him, but others are afraid of retaliation.”
An investigative report published online at Sichuan Anquan Shengchan Luntan (Sichuan Safe Production Forum) in October 2007 listed several other incidents in which miners at Liao’s mines were allegedly injured and cheated out of compensation. The report claimed that on 18 October 2005, Su Mingying suffered a broken left leg and injuries to his right leg when overloaded wagon-winching machinery failed at the Daxia mine. Su was certified with Grade 7 injuries but was forced out of a county hospital on 12 April 2006, and now has no way of paying daily bills or medical expenses. Huang Houming, a worker at the Daxia mine, injured his hand in a machinery accident on 31 January 2007; Huang is still owed compensation and has no means to pay his medical bills or living expenses. Liu Yuanzhong had his leg injured in a steel wire incident on 20 April 2005; Liao repeatedly insisted that he leave hospital early, and a compensation claim against Liao remains unsettled. Wang Zhenghua suffered a fractured knee on 22 January 2007, and was operated on at the County hospital. On 6 June Liao had Wang evicted from the hospital and sent home, saying that he had no money. Wang cannot afford treatment at home.
In order to collar their elusive boss, Huang Houming told the reporter that between nine and ten o’clock in the morning of the 13th of every month, between 20 to 30 injured men wait at a bridge on a road leading to the Daxia mine, some on crutches or in wheelchairs. The 13th is payday, and Liao has to visit the mine on this day. “If two or three people go after him, he will not give us the time of day, but if 20 or more of us go down there, he will be afraid of a disturbance, and might give a little money to each person, at most 300 or 400 yuan. We depend on this money for medical costs, and to buy food to eat.
“After accidents,” Huang said. “Liao soon tells workers to get out of hospital and go home to recover, but he does not give us the money for this. Because we are too weak to work, and do not have money for care, all we can do is come down here on the 13th of each month wait and use our strength in numbers to wring a little bit for medicine and living expenses out of him . It’s become a real lifeline.”
The law does not apply
China is not short of coal mine safety legislation. Since the 1950s, mining companies have been required to take measures to prevent silicosis. For example, back in 1956, the State Council propagated its Decision on Preventing Silica Dust Hazards at Enterprises and Mines. In 1982, the State Council published the Ordinance on Coal Mine Safety and the Ordinance on Mine Safety Inspection. This was followed in 2002 by the Law on Safe Production, and numerous other legislative and regulatory initiatives. See Appendix 1 of CLB’s research report Bone and Blood. Major Policies and Measures by the Central Government to Improve Coalmine Safety (2003-June 2007). And just a few weeks ago, Wang Dexue, deputy director of the State Administration of Work Safety, announced that firms in the mineral sector will soon have to obtain health licenses, following creation of a new division for occupational safety and health supervision. China’s laws and regulations now contain very detailed safeguards for victims of illnesses like pneumoconiosis and silicosis.
However, the statute books count for little or nothing at the coalfaces of Qu county. Xiao Huazhong worked in two “low-gas mines,” with few potentially combustible gases (and hence low explosion risk), but high levels of dust. At low seams, Xiao said, miners hacked away with iron clawing tools for nine hours at a stretch, in a daylong miasma of dust. “When we were digging, it was so dry! You could not tolerate it. You could not spit it out, and you ended up bringing it up in great lumps.” The men had no protective equipment of any kind, not even sprinklers to dampen the dust. Only the road-repair men hired for initial blasting were given masks. Nor did Liao offer company health or old-age insurance schemes. “The men just had their piece-rate wages, that was all,” Xiao said.
An unscrupulous boss and indifferent officials have made such conditions possible, but a third factor has enabled them to persist – a lack of worker awareness. Xiao knew nothing about national safety legislation when he was working. “We heard about measures promulgated three or four years ago by Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao,” he said. “But nothing came down to us. We wouldn’t have known about them at all if [a supporter] hadn’t looked them up on the Internet last year,” when Xiao’s pneumoconiosis was diagnosed.
Even though Xiao was a deputy technology safety officer in the mines, and had received rudimentary safety training, he knew little about pneumoconiosis and silicosis: “I didn’t have a very good understanding of occupational illnesses.”
Han: But if you got safety training, you should have a pretty clear idea about production safety laws and requirements?
Xiao: I relied on myself … I knew what I was doing with the technology; that was my strength.
Han: So when they made you a safety officer, it was only to look at production technology?Xiao: Yes, you could put it that way, only for production.
With everybody getting more than 100 yuan a day at Liao’s mines, sometimes as much as 200 yuan, “we didn’t really think of these things,” Xiao said.
Workers at Liao’s mines also failed to organize or use official channels. During all his difficulties, the only official body Xiao himself approached was the Labour Bureau. He did not consider litigation or even seek a legal opinion until Han Dongfang suggested it. “We are rural migrants. We don’t have the connections. We are not educated people.”
Han Dongfang’s interviews with Xiao and Zhi were broadcast over 12 episodes in April and May 2008.