The number of accidents and fatalities has steadily declined over the last five years but China’s mines remain the world’s deadliest. If it is to reduce accidents further, the country needs to address its production-driven development model as well as fundamental safety issues, said Huang Yi, spokesman for the State Administration of Work Safety.
Huang pointed out that one third of all the safety equipment at key state-owned mines, which are now playing an increasingly important role in coal production since the re-nationalization of small private mines in Shanxi last year, is obsolete and in need of replacement.
The government currently allocates around three billion yuan each year to upgrading mine safety but significantly more funds are needed, Huang said in an interview with the Chinese media published on 10 May.
Huang also stressed that migrant workers, who currently make up about half of China’s 5.5 million coal miners, do not get proper training and are often completely unaware of the laws and regulations related to coal mine safety. This combined with the fact that migrant mine workers are usually paid by piece rate means that their primary concern, sometimes their only concern, is coal extraction, with the attendant dangers being largely ignored.
“Migrant workers are both perpetrators and victims of accidents,” Huang said.
The spokesman also pointed out that while China has strict laws and regulations governing coal mine safety; these laws are rarely if ever implemented. For example, Huang said, the heaviest fine specified by law is two million yuan. However, not a single coal mine in China has ever incurred such a heavy fine for safety violations, neither has a single official been sacked for allowing unlicensed mines to operate in their jurisdiction.
As CLB pointed out in its research report, Bone and Blood: The Price of Coal in China, the reason for this lack of legal enforcement and official accountability is the widespread collusion between mine owners and local government officials, many of whom have a direct or indirect economic interest in the mines they are supposed to be monitoring and supervising.
Collusion between government officials and mine operators is probably the main obstacle to improvements in mine safety, and there is little evidence thus far that re-nationalizing small and medium-sized mines has helped resolve the issue. Indeed, it could be argued that by giving state-owned mines more economic power, they can use that power to more effectively buy off and influence local government officials.