Mining Calamity

26 March 2001

Guizhou province in southwest China has
a mining safety record that ought to belong to the history books. The
region around Liupanshui City, a coal mining area in western Guizhou,
has had more than its share of accidents over the last year, even by appalling
standards of China's coal-mining industry. CLB contacted mining
and trade union officials in the area following a recent spate of accidents.
A snapshot of the overall mining situation will help put the tragic events
in Liupanshui into context.

Overall Situation

China has five million coal miners who are
scheduled to produce 800 million tonnes of coal in 2001. Official figures
put the death rate in China's coal mines at approximately 10,000 per year,
or 27 miners a day. A 1999 study by the International Labour Organisation
(ILO) estimated that 6,000 people die in various types of small-scale
mines in China every year.

The structure of both China's mine industry
- especially coal - and the restrictions of the political system itself
combine to render these figures sadly incomplete. It is more or less impossible
to say just how many miners die each year in China (past estimates by
CLB have put the figure at 20,000 per year, but this is also an
approximation) but there is overwhelming evidence to support the argument
that the situation continues to deteriorate. This is despite the introduction
of the 1992 Coal Mine Safety Law and the creation of a State Bureau for
Supervising Coal Mine Safety established in 2000. While this bureau has
the power to close dangerous mines or order temporary suspension, the
relationship between the mines and the local economy in which they are
placed cements their operation to powerful vested interests.

Taxes from the hundreds and thousands of
small mines all over China help to meet the running costs of local governments
frequently strapped for cash. The close and often corrupt relationships
between government officials who grant operating licenses to coal mines
and local entrepreneurs who sub-contract pits and shafts from larger state-owned
mines, or open new ones, is effectively unregulated and open to abuse.
A pool of labour is more or less guaranteed by an almost endless supply
of under-employed young peasants, both men and women, who are desperate
to earn a living. Although many thousands of small-scale mines are closed
down each year by the central authorities, they are often re-opened after
the inspectors have left, as there is no check on the power of local officials
and owners who benefit from the mining. As many as 35,000 small mines
have been shut down over the last few years, but the overall number of
small, unregulated and terribly dangerous mines in operation remains high.

The changing ownership structure of the
mining industry has also had an effect on overall mining safety. While
attempting to regulate or close small scale mines, the Coal Ministry has
simultaneously permitted the privatisation of many state-owned pits that
has in turn provided a boost to small-scale production. In 1998, as much
of 40% of China total coal production came from small-scale mines. Despite
a wave of forced closures in 1999, many have re-opened since being shut
down, due to reasons stated above.

Apart from straightforward corruption and
the lack of independent supervision from an independent union, another
major reason behind the non-enforcement of safety rules is a lack of coordinated
departmental supervision. The Coal Mine Safety Law shares responsibility
for safety between labour, supervision and health departments and safety
is often compromised by bureaucratic conflicts and mismanagement. Desperate
to try and improve the situation - while refusing to allow miners to organise
independently - the government has even put a quota on the number of deaths
"permitted" in the coal industry according to the type of mines

Size of Mine

"Permitted" Fatalities
per Million Tonnes produced

Large-scale state-owned mines


Medium-size mines


Small-scale mines


Against this complex plethora of causes
behind the appalling safety figures is a basic lack of inspectors. China
has only a few thousand qualified inspectors covering over 200,000 mines.
Their job is fraught with danger: not only are they relatively poorly
paid and have to inspect hazardous mines, they can also get caught up
in the cross-fire of local profiteering and even Mafia-style violence.
Six investigators were murdered in a deliberate dynamite explosion at
an illegal gold mine in Henan province in 1998.

Liupanshui - City of Tragedy

OnSeptember 27th,
2000, at least 118 miners (and possibly as many as 161) died in an explosion
at the Muchonggou Coal Mine just outside the town of Shuicheng near to
Liupanshui City in Guizhou province. Between mid-February and mid-March
2001, over 100 miners died in Guizhou, mostly as a result of gas explosions.
At least 44 of the fatalities again took place in the region of Liupanshui
City. CLB made a number of calls to mining officials in Pan county,
Liupanshui City to try and find out more about the situation and also
raise the question of compensation. The conversations centred on an explosion
at a privately-owned Xiaohe Mine in Baiguo township, Pan county.

Pan County Coal Mine Bureau (official):
Initial investigations reveal the accident was caused by a coal-truck
collision in the shaft itself. This collision led to a fire.

CLB: Was the concentration of gas
in the shaft too high as a result of inadequate ventilation?

Official: Yes. Some walls collapsed
as well.

CLB: Did this mine have an operating

Official: We are investigating this
question at the moment. The mine underwent a merger last year and this
was not approved. We are deciding if this means it was operating illegally.

CLB also spoke with a deputy chairperson
of the Pan county branch of the All China Federation of Trade Unions
(ACFTU) to discuss compensation.

ACFTU: We are only taking part in
the accident investigation. We have no say over compensation.

CLB: How come?

ACFTU: There is no precedent or regulation
allowing us to take part in negotiations over compensation.

CLB: I thought the trade union was
supposed to represent the workers’ interests?

ACFTU: Yes. In the last two years
we have started to take part in accident investigation procedures. This
was not the case before.

CLB: If the relatives of the victims
are not happy with the level of compensation, will the union take a stand?

ACFTU: The people killed were peasants,
not workers. They’ll be happy with what they get.

CLB: They were mining coal. It doesn't
matter if the government calls them workers or peasants, the fact is they
were working as miners. Shouldn’t the union do its utmost to obtain
reasonable compensation?

ACFTU: True. But the local government
has already dealt with the matter.

CLB: This doesn't mean the settlement
was fair.

ACFTU: To be honest, the relatives
are not especially displeased with the compensation.

CLB: What do you mean by "not
especially displeased"?

ACFTU: I mean they are basically
satisfied with the compensation.

During the above conversation,
the trade union official told CLB that he had just been transferred
into the job from a position as a local court judge. He did not feel qualified.
We asked him if privately-owned and township and village mines in Pan
county had been organised by the ACFTU?

ACFTU: Not at all. But the County
Party Committee's leadership has just started this work.

CLB: When?

ACFTU: February this year.

CLB: Why do you have to wait for
the Party Committee's guidance. Couldn't this work have been done earlier?

ACFTU: There are lots of reasons.
We have to carry out orders from above.

CLB: Surely the point of a trade
union is to organise workers, not to carry out orders from above.

ACFTU: We do not have the vigour
or capacity to organise like that.

CLB: What do you mean "vigour"??

ACFTU: I can't really explain. I
am new to the job.

CLB: What is the main problem facing
you as a county-level trade union branch?

ACFTU: Not enough people. Conditions
in this area are very difficult with communication being the main problem.
We have to go everywhere by bus and it takes a long time to get anything
sorted out. Things are very difficult in mountainous areas like this and
you just have to get on with the work.



PRC Mine Safety Law (1992)

Anquan Shengchan bao (Safety
in Production News) 28/08/9

Social and Labour Issues of
Small Mines (ILO online)

South China Morning Post 05/01/01,

China Labour Bulletin Issue
52 (January-February 2001)


Online: 2001-03-26

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