Bone and blood : the price of coal in China

March 2008, 55 p. (pdf)

, by China Labour bulletin

Coal is the bedrock of China’s economic miracle. Domestic coal production fuels the country’s power stations, which deliver electricity to industrial plants and factories, which in turn produce the “cheap” goods eagerly bought by consumers across the globe.

A major reason why the clothes, bags, toys and electronic goods made in China are so cheap is because the work and, all too often the lives, of the poverty stricken rural migrants who labour in the world’s most lethal coal mines are so horrendously undervalued.

There are mine disasters in every coal producing country but the accident and death rates in China have remained consistently highest because, as CLB identifies in its new report, Bone and Blood: The Price of Coal in China, the privatization of coal mines has put profit before safety, coal output routinely exceeds safe production levels, investment in safety equipment is insufficient and unskilled workers are hired as miners. Moreover, mine owners and local officials have created an almost impenetrable network of collusion that prevents the central government’s well-intentioned safety measures from being enforced. Finally, without effective trade union representation, mine workers are unable to negotiate with mine owners and management over wages, working conditions and mine safety. The balance of power, particularly in privately owned mines, is so one-sided that workers are left powerless to protect their own interests.

The one central government initiative designed to improve safety and reduce accidents that has been implemented in the coal mining industry has actually resulted in the further erosion of workers’ rights. The new national benchmark for compensation to be paid to the families of coal mine fatal accident victims is 200,000 yuan (about US$28,200). It substantially improves upon previous levels of compensation, but it has also become an industry standard that is imposed on bereaved families regardless of needs and circumstances. These arbitrary settlements are often enforced with callous disregard for the grief and trauma suffered by bereaved relatives, while at the same time eliminating their rights to seek redress or compensation through the court system. Throughout the whole process of post-accident management, the local authorities are routinely more concerned with maintaining public order and preventing social instability than with addressing the welfare of the bereaved.

In conclusion, CLB makes a series of recommendations designed to improve mine safety and restore the civil rights of victims’ families. These include directly involving workers in mine safety management, raising wages and benefits so as to encourage the development of a long-term, stable and well-trained workforce, increasing work-related injury insurance premiums for mine companies, and reforming the compensation system so that victims’ families can obtain appropriate redress for the loss of their loved ones.

 Read the report "Bone and Blood: The Price of Coal in China" (pdf)