The regulations (山西省劳动合同条例), due to come into effect on 1 January 2010, specify that miners working underground should sign labour contracts of “generally no less than three years” (Article 14), and that new recruits should undergo at least 120 hours of training before working underground (Article 20).
But while these provisions might look good on paper, they will in reality do little to protect those working in the world’s most dangerous coal mines. As CLB pointed out in its 2008 research report on China’s coal mines, they best way to ensure a stable workforce is to raise wages and provide generous social security and healthcare benefits for skilled workers. Forcing miners to work several years for poor pay and no benefits is certainly not in their interests.
And rather than simply providing miners with a certain number of hours training, a far better way of ensuring safety would be to establish coal mine safety monitoring committees, consisting primarily of the workers themselves, empowered to order work stoppages if management refuses to address urgent safety issues.
The key drawback of the new regulations however is that the vast majority of workers in Shanxi’s small-scale privately-run coal mines simply do not have employment contracts, and that situation is unlikely to change after the regulations are implemented next year.
Private coal mines in Shanxi are notoriously lawless, often run by mafia-style coal barons in league with, or protected by, corrupt local government officials. Only last week five people died when local villagers in Shanxi’s Lin county were attacked by more than one hundred club-wielding thugs, reportedly in the employ of a local mine owner who had purchased the collectively-owned mine from local government officials the previous year.
The vast majority of miners in Shanxi are migrant labourers with little training or expertise who are hired and fired at will, and receive minimal compensation in the event of an accident or illness. Individual workers are virtually powerless against the mine bosses. The most pressing need therefore is for the workers themselves to organize, and, with the help and support of the official trade union, establish representative organizations that can stand up to the mine owners and go someway to improving mine safety.