Fri, Feb 18, 2005 - Page 9 News List

China's miners footing the bill for growth and profit


China is paying "a high price for its rapid economic growth," according to the state-run media reporting a series of accidents in the country's coal mines.

Nowhere else in the world is the life of a miner more dangerous, and nowhere is his life worth so little.

The rate of deaths per million tons of coal brought to the surface in China is 100 times that in the US and 30 times that in South Africa, two of the world's other major coal producers.

Energy shortages in the fast-growing economy and the high profits generated by the rising coal price are inducing mine managers to squeeze the most they can from the mines, pushing production beyond all sensible limits.

According to official statistics, 20 of the countries 27 coal producing regions are overburdened, with production around 10 percent above reasonable levels. Some coal mines are producing 50 percent above target.

Even in "normal" times, simple safety measures are widely ignored. Management is reluctant to invest in work safety.

According to an official estimate, the large state-owned coal fields, which produce some 60 percent of the country's coal, should invest 50 billion yuan (US$6 billion) in the necessary safety measures.

"It is now clear that insufficient expenditure on safety equipment and plant are the main reason for the accidents," the China Daily wrote a week ago, when the number of miners killed in China's mines last year was published.

The figure was an astonishing 6,000.

"Something must be done quickly ... We cannot permit more lives to be lost," the newspaper continued.

But nothing concrete is done, in spite of the fine words. During the Lunar New Year, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) visited the families of miners killed in the Shaanxi tragedy last November.

He cried with the mourning family members, as China's population was informed through the media.

"This accident has taught us a lesson that has been paid in blood," Wen said. "We must pay greater attention to production safety and cannot allow something like this to happen again."

Commentators said Wen had "warmed the hearts of all Chinese" by his actions and demanded that "lessons be learned from the tears of the prime minister."

But little has been learned from that disaster, as the continuing series of fatal accidents has shown. Criticism, however, has been voiced on an Internet site.

"Lack of security in the workplace, poor management and official corruption have led to the frequency of the accidents," one Web site said.

It quoted Zhang Baoming, the director of China's State Coal Industry Bureau, who said that virtually every accident was attributable to corruption.

Officials often simply close their eyes to contraventions of the work safety regulations, accept bribes or collaborate with mine management in ignoring safety concerns with their eye on higher production.

"Why so careless?" asks the China Daily, providing the answer itself: "When coal prices are rising, the rich profits on the market induce people to ignore the dangers."

The Zhongguo Qingnianbao asked why miners in China were at such high risk, concluding: "The real answer lies in the indifference of mine owners to the lives of their miners."

If China's mine owners had to pay the high damages laid down in the US, "the problem would be addressed with greater seriousness," it said.

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