Miners fleeing escaping gas forced down into mine shaft shortly before massive explosion kills 72 of them

25 March 2003
On 22 March 2003, just after midday, a massive explosion ripped through the Mengnanzhuang coal mine in the Yima township of Xiaoyi City, Lüliang District, Shanxi Province, bringing down the mineshaft roof and killing dozens of miners. China Labour Bulletin has received independent accounts from several miners and their families that many of those who died had attempted to leave the coal mine less than an hour before the explosion, after smelling a build-up of toxic gases in the mine shaft, but that a mine manager had forced them to return to the coalface despite the imminent danger.

The Mengnanzhuang coal mine should not even have been operating. It had been temporarily shut down by the authorities for safety reasons in late January 2003 and the closure order was still in force when the explosion occurred on 22 March.

The latest reports state that 72 miners are dead, with only 15 surviving out of a workforce of 87. According to China Labour Bulletin sources, as of mid-morning on 25 March, the bodies of at least thirty of the dead miners were still lying on the ground in the sunlight near to the mine entrance, slowly decomposing under plastic sheets. This is despite a reported 84-person strong rescue task force that has been sent to the mine since Saturday, and notwithstanding on-site visits to the scene of the disaster by the Shanxi provincial governor, the provincial Party Secretary and officials from the provincial trade union (ACFTU) office on the day of the explosion. Fifteen miners reportedly survived the blast, one of them seriously injured, which occurred when an estimated 87 people were working in the mine when the explosion happened. According to the People’s Daily, more than 500 armed and local police have now been sent to the Mengnanzhuang mine “to ensure the security of the site”.

China Labour Bulletin has learned that the electrical power supply to one of the coal mine’s two secondary shafts (used for ventilation and escape purposes) failed some two hours prior to the explosion. With the electricity down, the ventilation equipment stopped working and underground gases began to seep into the mineshafts. According to eyewitnesses, the smell of gas quickly became unbearable.

In separate interviews with family members of several of the dead and injured, China Labour Bulletin has learned that a group of the miners stopped work and returned to the surface once the mineshaft had begun to fill up with the potentially explosive gas. Appallingly, a manager at the mine (name unknown) ordered them to return back down the mineshaft to continue working, despite their strong and repeated protests. It is believed that some of the miners who survived may have done so only because they ran away from the mine entrance to avoid being sent back down again.

According to Article 56 of the Labour law of the People’s Republic of China: “Labourers shall have the right to refuse to follow orders if the management personnel of the employer direct or force them to work in violation of regulations, and to criticise, expose and accuse any acts endangering the safety of their life and physical health.”

In this case, however, commented Han Dongfang, CLB’s director: “It seems clear that the authorities should additionally be investigating the need to bring criminal charges against responsible officials of the Mengnanzhuang Coal Mine’s management for causing multiple deaths through negligence or worse.”

The Mengnanzhuang coal mine is a small, privately-owned mine with three principal shareholders; the local village committee, the Shanxi Provincial Coking Company, and one Meng Zhaokang, who is the director of a general power company located in neighbouring Xiaoyi City. According to family members interviewed on 25 March, Meng Zhaokang has now been taken into custody by the police for questioning in connection with the mine disaster.

This gas explosion was the third major mining accident since February in the Shanxi area. Following the explosion on Saturday at the Mengnanzhuang mine, the provincial government has announced the temporary closure of all mines in the province. According to Han Dongfang: “This is often the government’s response in such situations and it should be part of the answer, but in fact it never is. All that has happened following temporary regional mine closures in other provinces is that the price of coal rises, and rapacious mining practices soon become even more widespread locally. Meanwhile, the original safety problems continue unresolved at the mines that led to the temporary closures.”

In 2002 it was estimated that between 5,971 and 7,000 miners died in accidents - an average of about 20 people per day. Many coal mine accidents are hushed up by the coal mine owners and local officials. In many cases, the victims and their families are warned not to speak to journalists and face harassment if they do so.

“Until the miners themselves are allowed to establish proper health and safety committees, and until the government enforces health and safety regimes, miners will continue to die on a daily basis throughout China,” said Han Dongfang.


China Labour Bulletin has also learned more details about working conditions at the Mengnanzhuang mine. According to several direct sources, all the miners are forced to work for three months without pay at the start of their employment, and this money is not paid to them even when they eventually leave the mine. The sources added that there was no health and safety training at all for any of the miners. This clearly contravenes both current Chinese regulations on health and safety and also reported attempts by the government to reduce the arbitrary use of deposits or other methods that confiscate wages from workers.

In a conversation with the Luliang District ACFTU trade union branch, an official told CLB that he did “not believe that it was possible” for a manager to force the men back down to the mine in the event of a gas leakage. However the same official claimed that there was a local branch of the ACFTU at the mine – a claim that was later denied by the Luliang District Coal Mine Bureau when CLB telephoned the bureau. The district ACFTU official also denied any knowledge of the “details” of the confiscation of miner’s wages as “deposits”.

On 1 November 2002, a new Work Safety Law came into force in China. This law still does not provide for the workers’ own involvement in monitoring and protecting their safety at work, and the law remains inadequately enforced with widespread corruption, bribery and an overwhelming emphasis on profits all contributing to the continuing rise in mining deaths.

China Labour Bulletin urges the government to ensure that the basic rights of workers, including the absolute right to refuse to work when their lives are in danger, are respected without qualification, and to ensure that the results of any investigation into the Mengnanzhuang coal mine disaster are made public and that the mine officials responsible are brought to justice. “This slaughter of innocents in China’s mining industry must end, and the government must stop shirking its responsibility to enforce its own laws and regulations on mine safety,” said Han Dongfang.

25 March 2003

Revised 31 March 2003
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