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Chinese Mines Exploit Workers' Desperation

By Philip P. Pan, The Washington Post, Sunday 9 September 2001; Page A01

GANGZI, China -- It was raining the night before the accident, and only those most desperate for cash braved the weather for the late shift. By the foreman's count, 105 miners descended into Gangzi village's privately run No. 5 Coal Mine after midnight, the lamps on their helmets glimmering in the dark.

They were a slice of the modern Chinese working class, men like Wang Xinpo, who lost his job at a state coal mine after three decades, and women like Zhan Yun, a mother struggling to pay her children's school fees. Many were peasants squeezed by rising taxes and dwindling harvests, some of whom had traveled hundreds of miles in search of work. And there was a 16-year-old boy, Gao Yingru, trying to save enough money for computer classes.

As their shift stretched into its 10th hour, dangerous gases in a poorly ventilated shaft ignited, and the explosion killed 92 of them.

The July 22 accident in this hamlet 400 miles northwest of Shanghai was a reminder of the deteriorating condition of China's coal mines, where miners perish at a rate of one every hour, the highest such rate in the world. It also offers a study of the plight of the Chinese worker two decades after the Communist Party introduced capitalist economic policies while limiting political reform.

Workers in China are still portrayed by the government as masters of a socialist state. But they often toil in Dickensian conditions, without independent unions or other political institutions that might temper market forces. Economic reforms have also weakened China's top-down political system; even when Beijing wants to help workers, it often cannot force obedience from local officials hooked on profits, tax revenue and bribes.

Among those worst off are China's estimated 6 million coal miners. Before the reform era, all coal miners were employees of the now-defunct Ministry of Coal, and they were guaranteed a steady wage and a pension, as well as housing, education and medical care. But the industry is in the middle of a wrenching transition, and two classes of coal miners have emerged in China, both suffering hardship.

More than half work in large, state-run coal mines. These are dinosaurs of the old planned economy, saddled with excess workers, dwindling coal reserves and the worst kind of customers -- other insolvent state companies. Threatened with bankruptcy, these mines have shed as many as 1 million workers in recent years. They plan to lay off hundreds of thousands more. Miners who remain earn much less than they used to. Sometimes, they do not get paid at all.

The other miners work in places like Gangzi's No. 5 Coal Mine, small pits that local officials and private investors began opening in the mid-1980s as a market economy emerged. These mines are run like private businesses, and conditions are generally dismal. Managers often ignore labor laws and safety regulations, skimping on training and equipment to maximize profit.

More than 160 such small mines have been dug in Gangzi and surrounding villages. The miners work long hours, usually six or seven days a week, in cramped tunnels thick with coal dust and temperatures as high as 95 degrees. They are paid only for what they produce, about $60 to $120 a month if they are lucky. There is no health insurance, but there is always the threat of a gas explosion, a flooded shaft or a cave-in.

Drawing on a vast pool of surplus labor in the countryside and ties to local government, the mines enjoy tremendous leverage over their workers. The No. 5 Mine, for example, failed to pay Zhang Xiuhua and her husband, Chang Deifeng, for nearly two years. But the couple did not quit because they feared losing their claim on what they were owed.

We always hoped they would eventually pay us, Zhang said.

She was folding little pieces of red paper to be burned at a ceremony for her husband, who was killed in the explosion. If we complain, they can always find someone else to work, she said. We have to listen to the bosses, and they don't care about us. They only care about the coal.

Although official statistics vary, government mining journals estimate 10,000 Chinese coal miners die on the job every year, accounting for two-thirds of the world's coal-mine deaths. At the same time, China produces about a quarter of the world's coal.

Between 70 percent and 80 percent of these deaths occur in the small mines. One government analysis of accidents published in April said the fatality rate in China's small coal mines last year exceeded 17 deaths per million tons of coal produced. By comparison, the fatality rate is less than 0.05 for coal mines in the United States and Britain. It is less than one death per million tons in India and Russia.

Chinese experts disagree whether the fatality rate has begun to approach those during the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong's catastrophic efforts to create a purely socialist society that often led officials to neglect safety standards to meet unrealistic production goals.

At the No. 5 Coal Mine, a large sign proclaims, Safety is Heaven. But the pit has only one entrance, a violation of regulations. It lacks mandatory safety equipment, a proper ventilation system and a system to remove coal dust. It also routinely ignored a rule requiring technicians to check for dangerous gases two to three times during each eight-hour shift. In the United States, such checks are required every 20 minutes.

Chinese mines are required to pay benefits to relatives of miners killed in accidents, but they often do not. The government has promised to pay about $5,000 to each family that lost a miner in the Gangzi explosion, but the payments are much less in cases that don't receive so much publicity.

These small mines, they are driven by profit. They don't want to spend money on safety. They just want to produce more coal, sell more coal, make more money, said Wang Shuhe, a senior mine safety official, in an interview on state television. At the same time, because they are driven by profit, their workers are mostly peasants and migrants. They aren't educated, and they aren't suited for this kind of work.

In Gangzi, many miners are women and children under 18, in theory barred by Chinese law from working in coal mines. Miners said 13-year-old girls are sometimes hired to push coal carts.

One of the women at the No. 5 Mine was Jing Xiuhua, who began digging coal five years ago to help pay medical bills when her husband was injured in a mining accident. This year, the mine also recruited their 16-year-old son, Gao Yingru. The boy had just graduated from cooking school, but could not find a job in a kitchen. So he decided to earn tuition for computer classes by working in the mine.

They knew he was a good worker, so they kept calling and asking my wife to bring him, said Gao Beiwen, 46, holding a portrait of his son. I've been working in the mines for 20 years. I know it's dangerous. I didn't want him to go. . . . They violate safety rules all the time, he said, pointing out a scar on his face left by an explosion a few years ago. But where can we complain? We need the jobs, and the owners all have good connections with the local officials.

The explosion killed Gao's wife and his son, as well his younger brother and his brother's wife. He sits alone in his living room now, wondering how he will support his daughter and his brother's two boys and whether he will have to withdraw them from school.

China's coal miners represent a sensitive issue because the Communist Party built its reputation in part by fighting to protect them. Chinese schoolchildren still read about how Mao and the party's other founding fathers launched the Communist movement in China by leading strikes at Jiangxi province's famous Anyuan coal mine in the 1920s.

Today, miners at that large, state-run mine make as little as $50 a month. In 1998, several thousand laid-off workers there reportedly staged a demonstration with signs demanding food and jobs, then blocked a railroad and asked to be taken to Beijing before police dispersed them.

Such labor unrest at state mines has become increasingly common. Last year, about 20,000 miners and their families rioted and battled police in the northeastern city of Yangjiazhangzi for three days, protesting layoffs and corruption. This year, workers in at least two coal mines have staged strikes and blocked railroads.

Many of these state mines have cut back on salaries or stopped issuing paychecks altogether. The national backlog of salary payments to coal workers exceeds $600 million, according to government reports. Other mines are running out of coal reserves because of poor planning and lack of investment in exploration.

The state-run mines near Gangzi could run out of coal in three or four years, miners say. They have been shedding workers too, and some who lost their jobs turned to the No. 5 Coal Mine to survive.

They included Wang Xinpo, 52, forced into early retirement after 30 years of digging coal at the state-run Hangqiao Mine nearby, and Duan Siwen, 48, a geologist who also lost his job at Hangqiao. Both men had families to support and needed to supplement their pension payments. Both men died in the explosion.

Also killed were Gao Ping, 34, a mother laid off from the Hangqiao cafeteria, and her neighbor Zhan Yun, 40, who lost her job at a state-owned hotel. Their husbands, both Hangqiao miners, had urged them not to work in the No. 5 Coal Mine, but they insisted.

We have two children, and it costs $500 a year to send them to school, said Zhan's husband, Sun Dasun, who makes $50 per month and pays almost $20 in monthly government fees. My wife said there was nothing else we could do. We needed the money.

Party-controlled trade unions are supposed to stand up for workers in China. But there are few if any unions at the small coal mines. And even the government admits the unions at the state-run mines are sometimes powerless.

Over the past decade, the mine's trade union has not been able to protect the legal rights of the employees in the face of countless management problems and violations of employees' rights, the state-run Worker's Daily said in July of a coal miners' union in Shanxi province. This trade union exists in name only.

Since at least 1998, China has been trying to close small mines that do not meet safety standards, with little success. Beijing originally encouraged local officials to open the mines when China's economy took off in the 1980s and demand for coal jumped.

But then the small mines began squeezing the state-run mines, stealing coal from their territory and undercutting them with lower prices. A small mine might sell coal for as little as $2 a ton, while costs at state-run mines exceed $14 a ton on average, according to government reports. Rising fatality rates and environmental damage caused by the small mines also alarmed Beijing.

The campaign to close the small mines is complicated by the fact that they produce one-quarter to one-half of the coal used in the country. Closing all 70,000, as Beijing has occasionally vowed to do, would seriously disrupt an economy that relies on coal as its primary energy source.

Another obstacle is what the Chinese call local protectionism. Local officials do not want to close the small mines. Some are stockholders in the mines or receive bribes from owners. Other local governments rely on the mines for as much as 70 percent or 80 percent of revenue. Those mines that Beijing does close often reopen after a while.

In any case, most local residents do not want the mines closed, not even Liu Qiang, 31, who was left alone with two daughters, including a newborn, after her husband, Chang Yumei, was killed in the No. 5 Coal Mine. Liu said her husband knew the work was dangerous. But the mines had caused their wheat fields to sink into the earth, rendering the land useless. At the same time, local officials continued to insist they pay rising taxes and fees. And there were no other jobs available, she said.

So Chang went to work in the mine. Now, his widow plans to do the same.

The mines won't stay closed, and when they open again, I will work in them too, Liu said. It's not safe, but what else can I do? I don't think of it as good or bad. There's just no other way.