02/25/2005, 00.00
CHINA

The inexorable slaughter of Chinese miners: An overview

In China the demand for coal and the mortality rate among miners are directly correlated—when the first rises, so does the other. No where was this more evident than on February 14 and 15 when 220 miners died in two separate incidents in Yunnan and Liaoning provinces.

According to the Chinese State Administration of Work Safety, China accounts for some 80 per cent of the world's coal mining deaths—despite producing just 35 per cent of the world's coal.

Why does economic development spell death for so many Chinese miners? Why do they have no other choice than go underground? Here are some reasons.

1) Economic growth and energy requirements. Demand for coal is growing by leaps and bounds. It provides 61 per cent of China's energy, but local production still cannot quench the economy's increasing thirst for energy.

With gross domestic product growing by more than 9 per cent a year, and energy consumption rising by 16 per cent in the last two years of 2004, oil imports in the first six months of 2004 jumped by 40 per cent. However, China currently does not have the financial means needed to diversify its sources of energy.

Hence, coal production has been pushed up to 1.7 billion tonnes a year and economists predict it will grow 15 per cent annually to meet expanding demand. But without adequate investment in new technologies, increased production can only be achieved if mining companies take more chances with miners' safety.

2) Lack of safety regulations. Fires and explosions are inevitable when safety regulations are not respected and when ventilation systems are inadequate or non existent. This is so true for China.

Under Chinese law, mine safety is shared by both central and local government, but regulations are inadequate. Not only has China not signed the 1995 International Convention on Mine Safety and Health adopted by the International Labour Organisation, but when regulations do exist, they are not fully enforced. On the contrary, because of soaring energy demand the authorities have reopened smaller, inefficient and more dangerous mines that they had themselves closed in 2000.

Local authorities more often than not choose to cover up accidents to avoid official investigations and possible mine closure.

Some mine owners would rather bribe government officials than spend money improving safety.

In Shanxi province, 166 miners died in an explosion in November of last year because company executives threatened to fire workers if they did not go down into mine despite repeated fires.

The ban on independent trade unions compounds the problem because there is no one who can act on behalf of the miners. Moreover, the authorities tend to manipulate information about working conditions.

When accidents happen, the media are often kept away from accident sites and victims' families.

3) Poor equipment. Mining in China is still done by manual labour. The latest figures show that four miners die for every one million tonnes produced. This is 100 times higher than in the United States, according to state-owned Xinhua news agency.

A US miner is not only less likely to die but, using the proper equipment, he can produce up to 40 tonnes of coal a day compared to just one for his Chinese counterpart.

From 1992 till 2002, mining accidents killed 434 miners in the US but a staggering 59,543 in China.

4) Miners' working conditions. Mining is the only livelihood for many people. Most miners come from very poor villages and more often than not are poorly educated and just barely literate. Even then, they are aware of the risks they are taking but are willing to take them because a mining job pays better than farming.

In the Fuxin mines (Liaoning province), where 213 people died on February 14, a miner can make 1,500 yuan (€ 150 or US$ 200) a month. A farmer would have to work six months to earn as much.

Still, working hours are debilitating, and holidays are rarely given. One survivor from the Fuxin disaster said he worked without stop for a year because "there is a great demand for coal in the country".

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