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Power Struggle – Human and Environmental Cost For Chinese Booming Economy

Simon Parry – Updated on Sep 28, 2008 – SCMP

On average, 10 mainland coal miners die each day and while the government recognises the dangers posed by privately run mines, it needs to keep a booming economy supplied with fuel. Simon Parry reports on the human cost of doing so

The grubby, ramshackle clinic for injured miners is hidden away like a guilty secret at the end of a dirt track in a village near Datong, Shanxi province, China’s coal capital. Outside, Zhu Jiaching hobbles along on crutches and speaks through broken teeth about the day last September when luck was on his side.

“I was working underground when the scaffolding collapsed on me. My legs were broken and my teeth were smashed when I fell face down into the coal.” He points to his black and swollen upper lip. “I still have pieces of coal lodged in here.”

Zhu was carried unconscious out of the mine. He was one of the lucky ones. Last year, 4,000 mainland miners were killed in underground accidents. “A fortnight after my accident, there was another scaffolding collapse in the same stretch of mine,” the 39-year-old father of two says with a grimace. “Four miners were killed. All were from my home province.”

With no salary and only hospital meals to live off, Zhu is waiting to be well enough to return to his wife and children hundreds of miles away. “The mine manager came to see me a few weeks after my accident and offered me 10,000 yuan [HK$11,390] compensation if I took the money and went straight home,” he says.

“I refused. At the time I couldn’t even walk.

“The manager left and hasn’t been back. He won’t discuss the matter and I’ve been living in the hospital ever since. I want him to pay for the treatment to repair my broken teeth and give me proper compensation – then I’ll go home for good.”

In nearby Ganzhong village, Wan Mingyong, 35, smokes and chats with friends as he waits to begin his eight-hour underground shift. Luck was on his side too when, in another privately run coal mine in May last year, a wall of coal exploded in his face. Wan’s face and neck are still peppered with tiny lumps of coal.

“There was a roar and a bright flash and then I was blinded. Pieces of coal shot into my face like bullets and I was covered in blood. My first thought was `Am I blind?’ I spent a month in hospital but I was very lucky. I could have been killed,” he says.

“I was given 5,000 yuan compensation by the coal mine’s bosses. I wasn’t happy with it but what could I do? I had to look after my family so I got out of hospital as quickly as I could and went back to work at the coal face.”

Wan is well aware of how lucky his escape was. “My brother-in-law was crushed when scaffolding collapsed on him in the same mine in 2004. He should have lived but was left to die in hospital on the orders of the coal-mine owner so that he wouldn’t have to pay more compensation,” he says. “We believe they may have even given him a lethal injection.

“At that time, if a miner died, his employer had to pay the family 50,000 yuan compensation. If a worker was crippled, the amount would be three times as high because he had to be paid disability benefit. So it was much cheaper to make sure that my brother-in-law didn’t survive and that’s what they did.”

The stories of Zhu and Wan are typical. The men are part of an army of workers labouring in privately run mines in Shanxi and Inner Mongolia, in northern China, helping dig up the coal that accounts for nearly 70 per cent of the energy needs for the world’s fastest-growing economy.

China has overtaken the US as the world’s biggest producer of greenhouse gases, according to a University of California study released earlier this year, and 75 per cent of its carbon-dioxide emissions come from the coal-fired power stations that are being opened at a rate of almost one a week.

Greenpeace will this autumn release what is expected to be a highly critical report on China’s overdependence on coal, warning that it is heading towards an environmental disaster unless it increases the price of coal – heavily subsidised to support the booming economy – to restrict its use.

“The price of coal should reflect the full cost of using coal,” argues Beijing-based Greenpeace coal campaigner Liu Shuang. “These power stations are causing serious air pollution. They are not only causing problems for human health but they’re polluting the water and land as well.

“Action must be taken soon. The government did everything it could to stop pollutants during the Olympics but this is a problem that is visible in Chinese cities every day. The Chinese government is taking the coal issue seriously, but it has not done enough.”

It is an industry that exacts a devastating price not only in environmental terms but in human terms. China has 5 million miners and the annual death toll, mostly in smaller, privately run mines, accounts for 80 per cent of all mining deaths worldwide. An average of 10 miners die every day on the mainland. Last Sunday, 37 miners were killed in a gas explosion at a private mine near Dengfeng city, Henan province. The same day, at least 19 miners died after a fire in a coal mine in Hegang city, Heilongjiang province.

Alarmed at the accident rates, the mainland in 2006 announced a series of measures to improve safety, increasing inspections, improving compensation for injury or death and ordering thousands of smaller mines producing less than 90,000 tonnes of coal a year to close. The idea is to concentrate production in state-run mines, which employ tens of thousands of miners and where both safety standards and the quality of the coal are easier to control. The policy has had a degree of success, with death rates in the industry falling substantially from a peak of almost 7,000 in 2002 to 4,700 in 2006 and less than 4,000 last year.

But this year, in the brown and barren hills of northern China, where the country’s biggest coal reserves lie, the huge trucks that move between the privately run mines are once again rumbling back and forth as dozens of mines reopen.

“Since the beginning of this year, when coal shortages became acute, mines everywhere have started opening again,” a retired mining supervisor in Datong says. “The government knows what is happening but provided they allow inspectors to visit every now and again to check on safety standards, they are turning a blind eye to it.”

The reason is overwhelming demand. The mainland needs every last lump of coal to satisfy the demands of its industrial revolution, its booming urban electricity consumption and the additional strain on resources that the Olympic Games in Beijing has had. On top of that, China has just had its harshest, coldest winter in half a century, causing fuel shortages so severe President Hu Jintao travelled to Datong to personally appeal to its 200,000 government mine workers to dig harder to help their snowbound compatriots.

“The president’s visit made us very happy,” says Li Mingxin, 58, a retired miner working as watchman at the Datong’s Xin Zhaoyiu coal mine – known as Government Coal Mine No 5 – where more than 10,000 miners are employed. “We felt very proud. The president of our country had come and asked us for more coal to help save the country, so we all made a special effort.

“Everyone gave up their Lunar New Year holidays. We increased production dramatically and all the coal went to the south for electricity production. We were very happy to be called upon to help at the time of our country’s great need.”

Sitting beneath a portrait of Chairman Mao in his watchman’s hut, Li – who spent 41 years working as a miner – frowns as he speaks of the dangers facing workers at the smaller, privately run mines. “Here, we have very few accidents because the attention to safety these days is much greater than in the past.”

“But the private mines are so small and they use mules and oxen to pull the coal carts from underground. There is also the risk of gas explosions because management is poor, ventilation isn’t good and the machinery to test the density of the gas is not good enough,” he says.

In Datong, the vast majority of workers in the 18 government-run mines are locals and in many cases, jobs are passed on from generation to generation, with the sons of miners being given priority for jobs.

Salaries are about 3,000 yuan a month, much higher than the national average, with a pension of 2,100 yuan for retired, long-serving miners such as Li. “Many men of my age have no salary at all while I receive a 2,100 yuan pension and another 500 yuan a month for working as a watchman,” he says. “We are paid like civil servants but we deserve it because of the duty we did for our country.”

Private mines – usually owned by county or village governments but leased to private companies – are staffed by migrant workers from poor provinces who move from mine to mine to find better salaries and conditions. They can earn up to twice the monthly salaries of their counterparts in state-run mines, taking home up to 6,000 yuan, but the high salaries come at a terrible price: accidents in privately run coal mines account for about 70 per cent of China’s mining deaths.

One miner who works as an explosives specialist in a private mine outside Datong rues the day he turned down the chance to work in a state-run mine because he wanted to maintain a higher salary.

“I didn’t realise at the time that if you work in a government mine for 10 years, you get a pension for the rest of your life,” says Yang Hua, 39.

“As migrant workers in privately run mines, we take greater risks and move from mine to mine. I will have to carry on working until I am 60 to support my family. It’s very different for the mine owners. They drive luxury cars and can make 10 million yuan in just one month. Because of the coal shortage, they have never been able to make so much money.”

Stung by the government criticism of their safely standards, private mines now operate amid tight security, behind high walls and fences, with teams of security guards patrolling the premises to keep unwanted observers away. “No one is allowed in without the owner’s written permission,” a security guard at one private mine says.

In the present sensitive climate, even government-run mines are reluctant to let outsiders visit. Even though guided underground tours are advertised on fading billboards outside the showpiece Government Mine No 9, an official at the visitor’s office eyes us suspiciously and says: “Sorry. We can’t take you in. Our visitor insurance has expired.”

When we assure him that our own insurance will cover the visit, he flicks distractedly through a pile of papers before looking up and announcing: “The tour is very time-consuming and expensive and there are only the two of you. I’m afraid we can’t afford to take you inside.”

Reflecting on the accident that crippled him just three months after he began work at a privately run mine outside Datong, Zhu says: “It happened because of neglect. The managers knew there were cracks in the scaffolding but they still made us carry on working beneath it.”

As a relatively new employee, Zhu was earning only 100 yuan a day to work underground, laying explosives to blast into virgin coal faces, and would work 26 or 27 days a month to earn money to send home to his family in western Sichuan province.

“I used to be a farmer but I have a daughter aged 17 and a son aged 14 and I couldn’t earn enough to pay for them to go to school, so I decided to come to the coal mine to work,” he said.

“Now my family is in an even worse situation because of what has happened to me. My wife has had to borrow money to pay for the education of our two children and we also have my parents to support. It is very hard for them. I will go back to farming when I recover – I can never go back to working in a mine.”

His wait for a fair payout could be a long one if the experience of other injured miners is anything to go by. “I’ve been in this clinic for five years since I broke my legs in an accident and I still haven’t received a proper settlement,” says He Yao, 65, from Inner Mongolia. “I’ll never work again now and I have three children to support – so I’m not going home to my family until I’ve got the compensation I deserve.”

For Wan, the trauma of his accident last year and his relative’s death in 2004 have left deep and permanent scars. “My brother-in-law was only 30 when he died and he had a seven year-old son. The family hired a lawyer and proved in the court case that he should have survived. In the end, they got compensation of 180,000 yuan for his death – more than three times what they were originally offered,” he says.

“We have higher safety standards too. The Olympic Games made inspectors stricter and they are doing more to guarantee the safety of workers. If they check a mine and it isn’t safe, they close it down. The government policy is good because the government is more concerned about the situation of mine workers.”

However, despite the new level of official concern, coal mining in China is like a game of Russian roulette. “I do this work because the salary is better than working in a factory but I risk my life earning the extra money,” says Wan, speaking at the end of his shift in the communal miners’ home outside Datong where he lives with his wife and 12-year-old son.

“Every day when I go to work, my family worries about me, especially after the accident last May. It is only when I come back home at night that they can relax, knowing that another day’s work is behind me and that I am safe from harm.

“I keep doing this because I need to pay for my son’s education. I became a miner because I didn’t have a choice. I want my son to go to university and find a good job. I don’t want him to suffer the same hardships as me.”

Red Door News

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