Last Gasps: Asbestos Mining in China

31 October 1998

The imaginatively named Sichuan Asbestos Mine is a state owned complex of mines situated in Asbestos County in the western province of Sichuan. At present the Asbestos County miners face lay-offs (1), unemployment (2), forced share purchase to secure employment, deteriorating living conditions with no welfare safety net as well as the constant threat of permanent damage to the lungs from asbestos dust. Tragically, one caller from the area informed CLB that approximately 80% of the miners were not fully aware of the lethal nature of the dust.

The root of the problems at the Sichuan Asbestos Mine lies with a system that ruthlessly seeks to accumulate profits while conveniently ignoring both international conventions and national laws supposedly regulating and eventually phasing out asbestos mining.

The existence of comprehensive safety regulations in China's mines (for example, "Implementation Methods for Safety Monitoring in Building, Mining and Engineering", 1994) certainly demonstrate a knowledge of the risks to miners and their families and, in theory at least, a desire to reduce health problems within these industries. Yet the combination of an authoritarian state and the chaos of capital accumulation consistently facilitate the deliberate flouting of regulations, while at the same time outlawing the one type of organisation that has the potential to improve matters: real trade unions.

The following are extracts from a series of discussions with a listener from Asbestos County who is concerned with the deteriorating conditions of the miners.

(‘HDF’ indicates Han Dongfang)

Caller:On December 6, 1997, the mine where my relatives work stopped production and told the 800 or so workers to think of another way to earn a living. Many went to work as labourers repairing the electricity station's irrigation ditches. This work used to be done by farmers but most of them won't do it anymore as they say it's not worth the money, which is only Rmb 200 a month (3). But the miners had no choice.

On March 16, 1998, the mine went back into production and immediately laid off more than 200 workers. This was the first wave of redundancies and there is a strong possibility they will do the same again in the future. This is not the first time they have suddenly stopped production like this. It happened at the end of 1996 as well.

Han:Why did they stop production?

Caller: They can't sell the asbestos so they have no money. It's basically a cash flow problem. They open up the mine again when they have found new buyers or the original buyers place a new order. I am not sure who these buyers are.

Han: It is difficult to understand why the mine is still in production at all. Asbestos is banned in the construction industry for safety reasons. Also, mining it causes considerable damage to both the miners and the local environment. Logically there shouldn't be a market.

Caller: I know, but they are still running the mines at every level. There is the state mine, the prefecture(4) mine, the Sichuan Asbestos Mine and also the Xin Kang Asbestos Mine. Xin Kang is a Reform Through Labour camp(5) in Ya An district of Asbestos County.

Han: There are two major problems here. One is the 200 or so lay-offs you mentioned and what these workers can do to earn a living; secondly there is the problem of the safety conditions of those miners still employed?

Caller: One way for laid-off miners to stay in work is to buy shares in the mine. They call this "buy shares get work" (chi gu shang gang). At first the management told the employees to hand over Rmb 500 to buy a share in the firm which, in theory, ensures employment. If you couldn't pay, then you were laid off automatically. Once you’re laid off, they only pay lay-off wages for three months at Rmb 60 per month. It's almost impossible to get by on this amount. The whole thing is made worse by the fact that laid-off workers still have to pay Rmb 90 a month into the insurance scheme. So it works out that laid off miners end up paying the mining authority Rmb 30 a month! As for this "buy shares get work" idea, it's actually illegal. Government policy states that state-owned mines are not allowed to sell shares.

Han: Company law, the labour law and government policy all forbid forcing workers to buy shares in any circumstances whatsoever…..

Caller: Yes, that's what the rules say and its all clearly written in black and white that state-owned mines are not allowed to privatise (gufenzhi) but they are still doing it. The miners were really angry with this and felt they were being tricked out of nearly two months wages. So the management decided to call it a "Job Deposit" (shang gang baozhengjin) which is just another name for the same thing. They also introduced a local rule that says workers have to come up with the so-called Rmb 500 deposit within three months. If you had not paid it by the beginning of the fourth month, you were out.

Han: How many paid?

Caller: About a third managed to get the money together and the remaining two thirds couldn't. Perhaps the management needed the cash, but I think it was also an excuse to get rid of potentially militant workers. Among those who ended up being laid off were many good miners who didn't get along with management.

Han: What happened to the 60% of workers who were laid off?

Caller: When workers in our county are laid off, the local authorities just ignore their responsibilities for re-training and re-employment. So as you can imagine public feeling was riding high and many people made the problem known to the county government who then criticised the mine management and ordered them to improve the way they were dealing with the lay-offs. As a result, all those who had been laid off because they couldn't afford the deposit were re-hired. When they went back, they found that the original wage system had been scrapped and everyone was paid the same rate as casual labourers, although the rate for contracted temporary labourers was slightly higher than before.(6)

Han: So to sum up: the management re-opened the mine and then asked the employees to pay a job deposit. One third of the workforce paid up and the other two thirds were laid off. This latter group then protested to the local government authorities who ordered their temporary reinstatement. Did the management agree to return the deposit to the workers who paid up in the first place?

Caller: As yet no, but some of them are demanding it back and the situation is not clear. Wages are being paid on a head count basis at the moment and there is not much differentiation. This means that it is like the old system of "eating from the big pot" where everyone gets paid almost the same rate as long as the job is done. Whether it is done well or not is not included in the calculation. Wages are between Rmb 300 to 400 a month. After the government ordered the management to take them back, a very small minority (about 30) didn't go back and these guys are having to get by on lay-off wages of Rmb 60 a month. I should emphasise that I am only talking about the situation at Sichuan Asbestos Mine. I am not sure of the situation at other mines and don't want to give wrong information.

Han: Turning to the safety aspect of the mine. We have already discussed that asbestos mining can cause permanent damage to the health and that it is somewhat surprising to learn that the mines are still in operation. Of course, you might think that in a so-called "workers' state" the Party would make sure that people did not have to resort to such dangerous and unnecessary work to earn a living. As you've stated, the economic situation of the mine is not good. How has this affected health and safety?

Caller: Safety in the production process is still stressed at the mine and in recent years there have been relatively few serious accidents. At the same time, there is basically no protection against industrial illness. Asbestos has a very serious negative effects on the human body, but there are no measures to combat this danger and I have never heard of any one being compensated. I can guarantee you with complete confidence that at least 80% of workers at the mine are unaware of the dangers of working with asbestos.

Han: What about medical checks such as lung scans?

Caller: I have never heard of anything like that at the mine. One of my relatives has been working there for over 20 years and he clearly told me that he has never had a medical check up, despite the fact that this is a provincial level state-owned mine.

Han: On paper, China's occupational safety and health (OSH) (see Box 1) laws are comprehensive yet there is one crucial difference between China's laws and the corresponding ILO conventions: namely that workers and workers' representatives have the right to discuss health and safety with the employers "on an equal basis" (see box 1). Despite all China's laws and regulations, the real reason why workers at the Sichuan Asbestos Mine have gone for years without medical checks and safeguards lies with the government's refusal to allow workers to organise independently. The official ACFTU has been instrumental in allowing this situation to go on while consistently selling the interests of miners down the river.

Caller: The ACFTU hasn't done anything to alleviate the situation. People in our county would not think of going to the union to ask them to help fight lay-offs. Some people have thought of trying to organise their own unofficial union but are scared of getting arrested. It happened recently in March this year at a shoe making factory that had announced bankruptcy. Some of the workers had been paying into a pension scheme, but when they were sacked it turned out the money had disappeared. One guy organised some demonstrations, but the police detained him until things had calmed down. This is how things go here. But they can't keep on like this. I think that if there was another explosion against corruption like the business back in 1989 the result would be very different. The levels of corruption weren't nearly as bad then. If it happened again, far more workers would get involved and the end result would be very different! People are getting desperate.

There was a tragedy not far from us. Both breadwinners from the same household were laid off and were trying to survive on Rmb 120 a month. They couldn't pay all the miscellaneous school fees for their child and were not getting enough to eat either. One day the child tried to steal some meat from a nearby farmer's house. He got caught so the parents went to try and explain things to the farmer. The farmer was sympathetic to the situation of laid-off workers and instead of going to the police gave them some more meat. Afterwards the parents became seriously depressed. It had been a long time since they had eaten meat and the episode seemed to highlight their hopeless situation. The parents killed their child and then committed suicide.

Box 1: Health and Safety Regulations in Asbestos Mining in China

A recent issue of the China Journal for Occupational Health and Safety (Zhonghua Weisheng Zhiyebing Zazhi) published the results of research in its June 1997 issue which found that many Chinese workers who came into contact with asbestos dust were developing cancers and tumours.

An article in the October 1997 issue of the same magazine pointed to the connection between those living in or near an asbestos-polluted environment and serious health problems. The article concluded that the instances of such diseases where asbestos was mined or processed were much higher than other areas where asbestos was not present.

ILO Convention, 1986, No.162 states that where it is not immediately feasible to totally phase out asbestos use measures should be taken to protect workers' health. (see Box 2) Although China has not yet signed this convention, the government has drawn up a series of regulations aimed to protect workers' health. On November 5, 1987 the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Finance and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions jointly promulgated the "Regulations on Dealing with Categories of Industrial Diseases and Affected Persons, 1987", which categorises asbestos dust as a serious cause of lung diseases. Moreover in 1983, three years before the ILO's Asbestos Convention, the Chinese government passed the "Regulations on Safety in the Building and Mining Industries" (the “Regulations”).

Article 6 of the “Regulations” states that in mines where there is a risk of coming into contact with asbestos dust, at least three out of every 100 workers must be specifically allocated to safety work. Article 185 states that the dust must be tested for type and degree of asbestos content at least once every year. Article 148 states that miners should undergo a medical check up once every two years. Where is a doubt that an employee has contracted a lung condition, the employee shall undergo an annual medical examination and a medical file be opened and kept up to date. Such tests should include an X-ray and medical treatment where necessary.

Box 2: ILO Asbestos Convention 162, which China has yet to sign, contains much that is relevant to the problems facing asbestos workers in China:

Article 10

Where necessary to protect the health of workers and technically practicable, national laws or regulations shall provide for one or more of the following measures-

(a) replacement of asbestos or of certain types of asbestos or products containing asbestos by other materials or products or the use of alternative technology, scientifically evaluated by the competent authority as harmless or less harmful, whenever this is possible;

(b) total or partial prohibition of the use of asbestos or of certain types of asbestos or products containing asbestos in certain work processes.

Article 12

1. Spraying of all forms of asbestos shall be prohibited.

2. The competent authority shall be empowered, after consultation with the most representative organisations of employers and workers concerned, to permit derogations from the prohibition contained in paragraph 1 of this Article when alternative methods are not reasonably practicable, provided that steps are taken to ensure that the health of workers is not placed at risk.

Article 21

1. Workers who are or have been exposed to asbestos shall be provided, in accordance with national law and practice, with such medical examinations as are necessary to
supervise their health in relation to the occupational hazard, and to diagnose occupational diseases caused by exposure to asbestos.

2. The monitoring of workers' health in connection with the use of asbestos shall not result in any loss of earnings for them. It shall be free of charge and, as far as possible, shall take place during working hours.

3. Workers shall be informed in an adequate and appropriate manner of the results of their medical examinations and receive individual advice concerning their health in relation to their work.

4. When continued assignment to work involving exposure to asbestos is found to be medically inadvisable, every effort shall be made consistent with national conditions and practice, to provide the workers concerned with other means of maintaining their income.

5. The competent authority shall develop a system of notification of occupational diseases caused by asbestos.


(1) Laid-off workers, xiagang gongren, are workers still employed by a work unit or company but told not to come into work. For political reasons they are still considered employed by the company and should receive lay-off wages.

(2) Unemployed workers, shiye gongren, are workers whose formal connections with their previous employer are severed. Unemployment benefit should be paid to them by the local government.

(3) The average minimun wage in Sichuan is Rmb 177.5.

(4) 'Prefecture' is an administrative division in China.

(5) 'Reform Through Labour' is where many people end up after being found guilty of committing a crime. As the name susggests, it is a prison labour system.

(6) Since 1986, many state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have hired workers under three basic categories: contracted full time, contracted temporary and non-contracted casuals.



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