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Last Updated: Sunday, 28 November, 2004, 11:43 GMT
Life cheap in China's mines
Chinese miner
Chinese mines have a terrible safety record
Being a Chinese miner is one of the most difficult, dirty and dangerous jobs there are.

In the first nine months of this year, 4,153 people died in mining accidents in China, say official figures.

That figure is 13% down on the same period last year. But the official figures are unlikely to tell the whole story, say rights groups such as the China Labour Bulletin (CLB), which puts annual deaths at around 20,000.

Many mining deaths go unreported.

"The issue of owners trying to pay off compensation to cover up accidents, that is quite common," said Dominique Muller of the LB, based in Hong Kong.

Back-handers may be expensive, but not as costly as having the mine shut down or being forced to pay statutory compensation.

People are obviously wanting to make a profit, and safety equipment is expensive
Dominique Muller, China Labour Bulletin

And there are some startling examples of mine owners taking drastic action to avoid paying compensation altogether.

In May 2002, according to China's official media, 21 miners were trapped by an explosion in a mine in the north-west of the country. But instead of attempting to rescue them, the mine's owner destroyed employee records and whitewashed over scorch marks, leaving them to die.

And in June 2003 in northern China, the bodies of 36 miners who had been killed in a blast in a gold mine were found to have been hidden in an attempt to cover up the accident.

Such cases are probably rare.

But small, privately-run enterprises have mushroomed since China started effecting economic reforms two decades ago, and the boom seems to have had a negative effect on safety in the long term.
A man is rescued from a fire at a mine in Hebei province last week
Many miners feel they have no choice but to take the risks

Although illegal mines and those failing safety inspections have been ordered to close down, they often start up again straight away.

Local officials, eager for tax revenues, are bought off by the mines' owners, and there are few inspectors available to check the situation.

Even if the local government knows of the mine, they might not know how many miners work there, making an accident all the easier to cover up, said Ms Muller.

Livelihoods at stake

The CLB said that the cheapest and easiest way for the local authorities to enforce safety guidelines was from "the bottom up" - using the miners themselves.

But, in a country where all independent unions are forbidden, this is delicate ground.

"A grass roots method would be a low cost and very immediate method that they could use, but in a way their reluctance to do that is linked to the lack of freedom of association in China," said Ms Muller.

And in any case, the miners have a vested interest in keeping the mines going too.

It may be a hard life, but many are former farmers whose land has been swallowed up by China's economic modernisation. Many feel they have no choice but to go down the pit.

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30 May 02 |  Asia-Pacific

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