May 03, 2012

Southern Mongolia: Mines Remain Hazardous

An explosion which took place in a coal mine in Southern Mongolia killing nine miners has again illustrated that while China has somewhat improved safety conditions in its mines, much more needs to be done to protect the rights of miners.

Below is an article published by the Asia Times:

China is notorious for containing some of the world's deadliest mines - a reputation that has been corroborated in recent months by a series of fatal accidents. China is the world's largest consumer and producer of coal. But the mining industry is beset by illegal operations, dangerous working conditions, local corruption and cover-ups of fatalities.

Nine coal miners died and 16 were injured in an explosion in Inner Mongolia in the latest disaster April 23 [2012]. Twenty-one people were detained for allegedly attempting to cover up the deaths of miners, a crime punishable with a fine and imprisonment.

At least 10 workers in an illegal coal mine in China's northern Shanxi province died in a flood. In a separate accident in central Henan province last month at least five miners were killed in a flood.

Safety conditions at China's mines have advanced considerably. But they continue to be counted as among the world's most dangerous. According to official figures last year there were 1,973 fatalities, down from 2,433 in 2010 and 7,000 in 2002. In 2010, estimates saw six die a day in China's mines - compared with just 48 deaths a year in America.

Activists, however, believe the real numbers are higher still. Reporting of accidents is hampered by cover-ups and lack of free press.

Human-rights activist Pen Fei claims that a high percentage of mine accidents are covered up. Mine owners often offer victims' families private compensation at a far higher price than official legal compensation as a pay-off to keep quiet.

"That the local government is corrupt is not a matter of yes or no - it is a matter of how much," Pen tells IPS. Mine workers suffer from "abuse of power, low wages, and a lack of public supervision. They choose their jobs to relieve financial burdens for their families, but they end up miserable."

Pen points out that many miners are forced to work as virtual slaves underground for periods that can stretch to as long as 48 hours. The result is severe long-term health problems.

Measures enacted by the government to improve safety standards include an order to mines to build and improve underground emergency shelter systems by June 2013. The shelters must contain airtight doors, oxygen machines and protective walls.

The government has also worked to close down illegal mines and to fire officials who flout safety rules. The 2009 Heilongjiang catastrophe, in which 104 miners died in a methane and coal dust explosion, saw the sacking of three top officials.

In 2010 China pushed through a new law stating that supervisors must go down the shaft with workers or face severe fines of up to 80% of their annual income and a lifetime ban on supervision work.

The law is a move to hold bosses accountable. It has also opened the doors for elaborate attempts to conceal abuses and avoid the shafts. In September 2010, Chinese media reported that one mine simply hired substitutes to stand in for the supervisors.

Most notoriously in November last year a mine boss smeared coal over his face to pretend he had been down the shaft with his staff when 34 miners died in a powerful gas leak.

Qi Guming, deputy head of Sizhuang Coal Mine in southwest Yunnan province, "rushed down the shaft and smeared coal on his face to pretend he had escaped from underground", state media reported at the time. The mine was operating illegally and its licence had previously been revoked.

"We say lots of mines are illegal because the government doesn't want to issue all the documents needed when mine owners file for applications," says He Bing, law professor at the China University of Political Science and Law.

"For example, the government will hold back and not issue the permit [to operate a mine]. In that case, if accidents happen, the government can always stay out of it and let the mine owners take all the responsibility," says He. "At the same time, government officials are shareholders in local mines ... under such conditions the local government will not be democratic and legal."

For conditions to improve, He believes that the government must intensify efforts to enforce the law and increase the legal compensation rate for victims and their families to prevent underhand pay-offs.

Pressure from the public in an increasingly vocal Internet age is crucial in China to push through reforms and highlight specific cases. The Internet - which now has over 500 million users in China - has become a platform for whistleblowers.

"The government has made efforts, but not enough," says Pen. The impetus from public opinion "is crucial. The senior leaders in the system should make responses. Changes only take place when the government and society interact."