Take Tough Action To End China's Mining Tragedies

By Sara Davis and Mickey Spiegel

Published in The Wall Street Journal

February 18, 2005  
China's grim 19th century style mines -- many of them little more than holes in the ground -- claimed yet more lives this week. A gas explosion ripped through the Sunjiawan coal mine in the northeastern province of Liaoning on Monday, killing at least 210. And a blast at an illegal coal mine in Fuyuan County in the southwestern province of Yunnan claimed at least five more lives Tuesday. They were just the latest casualties in a familiar story of mining accidents, which routinely claim the lives of dozens of young miners every month. China must begin to supervise these companies and the international community must ensure that they do.  

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Many of those who die belong to China's growing underclass. They are desperately impoverished boys and men from rural villages. Some roam from one remote region to the next, doing the world's most dangerous work in order to feed themselves and their families. Last year, according to the government, more than 6,000 died -- constituting at least 80% of the world's mining casualties. The true number is probably even higher, as companies often cover up the deaths and buy silence from the families of casualty victims. The latest disasters, coming in the midst of China's annual Lunar New Year celebration, highlights the bleak disregard with which Chinese companies and the state hold the lives of these workers.  
Conditions in Chinese mines are much like those described in the writings of Upton Sinclair about the U.S. a hundred years ago. "Here," he wrote in "King Coal," "was a separate race of creatures, subterranean, gnomes, pent up by society for purposes of its own." In 1999, a Human Rights Watch researcher visited a coal mine in the company of a group of safety engineers, and found similar conditions in China. Bulbs dangling from electric wires produced little light for the miners forced to walk to the working seams. A transport car was said to be "not working" that day. Workers wore helmets made of nothing sturdier than bamboo. They dug coal with hand tools, and carried them in a cloth bag to the surface over their shoulders. Officials frankly admitted their fear of fires and gas explosions.  
This week's deaths were far from the first this year. Chinese miners routinely die by the dozens, in everything from floods, to explosions, fires and roof collapses. Even since the beginning of the year, fatalities have already been reported from several Chinese provinces -- Shaanxi, Yunnan, Hunan, Henan, as well as an earlier accident in Liaoning. Some died after jumping down a mine shaft to save the lives of co-workers. As China develops and its desperate need for fuel grows, depleted coal mines force workers ever deeper underground, into increasingly dangerous situations. Those who quit are quickly replaced, often with untrained workers newly arrived from the countryside.  
Although China has some mine safety laws, implementation is sporadic at best. That has to change. The state needs to take a stronger and more aggressive stance toward mining companies. Those responsible for the Liaoning disaster, which like many others happened at a state-owned enterprise, must be held to account. In January, the Chinese State Administration of Work Safety pledged to, "eliminate any single coal mine accident causing 100 fatalities or more" in 2005. One month later, the Liaoning catastrophe has already given the lie to this promise. Beijing also recently pledged to overhaul its mine-safety laws, a process that will likely take years. International Labor Organization Convention 176 on Safety and Health in Mines offers excellent guidance; China should ratify the convention and begin to implement it. It stipulates that, in addition to passing mine-safety laws, countries which are party to the convention should establish agencies to supervise and inspect mine safety, and halt work or even close mines that do not pass inspections.  
Miners also need to have labor unions. In the rest of the world, mining conditions have been revolutionized thanks to advocacy by their unions. But Chinese miners are forbidden to organize independent labor unions by national law. China must lift all such restrictions.  
In addition, China needs a free press to rally public support around the reform effort. Where is China's answer to Upton Sinclair? The answer: those voices are censored. Since Feb. 14, the Liaoning provincial propaganda department has ordered a news blackout on the mining disaster, with only the state-run Xinhua News Agency permitted to report on it. But even the usually imperturbable Xinhua has spoken out, albeit in muted terms. A recent article called for the company to be held responsible for the loss of life.  
The international community must press for these urgent changes. As China becomes a global investor, its slack oversight of mining companies is a growing concern beyond China's borders. A damning new report from Thailand's Images Asia shows how Chinese mining companies are working hand-in-hand with the Burmese military junta in a massive gold rush, exploiting the rich mineral resources in Burma's ethnic regions, and dumping mercury-poisoned mine tailings back in the rivers. The mining companies are shipping Chinese workers across the borders, and this prospect should horrify us: if anything, Burma's regime is even more lax than China about mine safety. The international community must speak out or, as China's mining industry reaches across the borders, its abuses will too.