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China's deadly mining industry
By Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING - China has renewed its efforts to improve conditions in its coal mines and reduce the alarmingly high number of mining accidents, but newly unveiled statistics suggest the country remains one of the world's deadliest places for miners toiling underground.

Last year, 6,995 coal miners were killed in explosions, shaft collapses and floods in different parts of the country, according to government figures. In the first half of this year, the number of fatal coal mine accidents rose 10.3 percent over the previous year to 1,630, the Chinese trade newspaper China Coal Report reported this month.

Government officials consider as fatal accidents those resulting in 10 or more deaths. Even as the new figures were being released, three mining accidents in July brought the death toll up by more than 40 people - all trapped in gas-filled shafts, buried in rubble from explosions or drowned in flooded coal pits.

The increase in deadly accidents comes despite the enactment of a new occupational safety law in October, which promised to hold businesses and government departments more accountable for accidents. In May, new tough regulations threatening financial punishments for those enterprises forsaking safety went into force.

The rising figures of industrial deaths are embarrassing for the new generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders who came to power last fall vowing to improve the lot of China's disgruntled industrial workers. They particularly singled out the working conditions of the country's five million miners.

On the eve of Chinese Lunar New Year in January, Wen Jiabao, the premier-designate at the time, signaled the new leadership's commitment to care for the miners by celebrating this traditionally family festival with coal miners underground.

China, the world's largest coal producer, relies on coal for more than 70 percent of its energy needs. Poor safety regulations, slack management and the lack of government pressure are all blamed for the country's dismal track record in mining accidents.

Independent experts consider official statistics of mining accidents a gross underestimate because more than half of China's coal miners work in small mines run by local governments - and they are known to censor reports of all accidents. A commonly cited estimate is that about 10,000 miners die in China every year.

Repeated efforts to close smaller shafts, many illegal or privately-run with lack of even rudimentary fire-fighting and safety equipment, have yielded no results. Despite the central government's ban, many mines that have been shut down quickly reopen, often in cooperation with local officials who rely on their revenues to meet the localities' running costs.

As part of the move away from a planned economy, China's coal industry has been downsized over the past five years and now big state mines are also the responsibility of local (town and county) or provincial governments. This means that even in state mines, it has been hard to enforce health and safety regulations because local officials and mine managers share an interest in boosting profits.

A mine accident in the country's northeast industrial belt, widely reported even in the state-censored media earlier this year, illustrates the perils of the whole industry. Thirty-three miners were trapped in an underground shaft after a gas explosion in a coal mine in Harbin, Heilongjiang province. The mine had previously been government-owned, but had been leased to a private subcontractor who recruited cheaply paid and poorly trained peasants for the job.

Little was spent on improving the old ventilation system and providing new firefighting equipment, because the leaseholder saw the mine as a short-term investment. This proved fatal when gas built up in the shaft and triggered an explosion. All 33 workers perished.

The dire state of China's mining industry closely mirrors labor standards in many other industrial sectors, where decentralization of management has enabled local governments to turn a blind eye to worker safety and labour exploitation.

The International Labour Organization estimates that 11.1 of 100,000 Chinese workers die annually from industrial accidents. This contrasts with workplace fatality accidents of 2.19 per 100,000 in the United States.

Last year alone, some 14,924 people died in industrial accidents in China, according to the State Administration of Work Safety. Even as disaffected workers demand safety and better working conditions, they are forced to put up with the lack of such, as thousands of migrant laborers are willing to forget about safety hazards in order to get and keep jobs.

"The large volume of people looking for low-end jobs drives down wages and working conditions and allows migrant workers to be exploited by employers," argues Anita Chan, a China labor researcher at Australia National University, in a paper published by the journal China Perspectives.

Because the Communist Party bans independent trade unions, which it sees as a threat to its monopoly of power, and the official trade union acts as an arm of the Party, there is no one left to speak up for workers' rights. Few lawyers have dared represent workers' demands out of fear that aligning with protesting laborers might be seen as state subversion.

Wu Zhongmin, sociology professor of the Central Party School, believes now it is up to the new party leaders to redress the situation. "The new government should shift its focus from economic development to the needs of the poor," he said.

In Wu's views, the consequences of more than two decades of single-minded economic development should now be rectified with more official concern for the welfare of workers.

"China's funding for the minimum living standard scheme is too low," he continued, referring to the government's welfare experiment in establishing a minimum living allowance. In 2002, the central government set aside several billion yuan for the program. But, by comparison, Beijing will invest 200 billion yuan (US$24.1 billion) for the 2008 Olympics.

(Inter Press Service)
Jul 26, 2003

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