Both the Hong Kong and mainland press have carried numerous reports on last Sundays tragic explosion at the Wufu mine in Jiawang, Jiangsu province. Experts from the International Labour Organisation, specialist academics in China and even journalists in the state-controlled media have spent the past ten years analysing our coal-mining industry and charting its descent into chaos. All manner of reasons have been rightly pinpointed as to why Chinas coal industry has the highest fatality rate in the world: a lack of investment, industrial restructuring, a drop in the price of coal on world markets, privatisation, subcontracting, and widespread corruption all contribute to the daily calamities in Chinas mines.
Yet one underlying cause behind the terrible statistics has gone almost unreported the Chinese governments complete ban on independent trade unions. Of course, independent trade unions are not a magic potion with the capacity to transform the industry. Yet the international history of the trade union movement demonstrates that independent, democratically organised trade unions and workers organisations can have a dramatic impact on health and safety at work. And nowhere is this more the case than in intrinsically dangerous jobs such as mining.
China Labour Bulletin has long argued that the Chinese government must fulfil its obligations as a member of the International Labour Organisation and allow workers to organise unions and elect representatives to negotiate wages and conditions with their employers, be they the state or private companies. In fact, this right is supposed to be guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution itself. But the government continues to insist that only the state-controlled official trade union, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) may legally exist. The chaos of our coal industry, blighted by accidents, wage arrears, strikes and even violent clashes between miners and the police is testament to the fact that this state-controlled, unrepresentative and often despised organisation has failed Chinese workers in general and Chinese miners in particular.
We appeal to the Chinese government to repeal the Trade Union Law and grant all workers the right to peacefully negotiate work-related issues such as health and safety. This will not end the tragic accidents, but it will at least be a start.