Although the price of coal is rising, China’s miners see little of the added value. Li Boren earns US$200 a month working at a mine in Sanmenxia, Henan province. It is a state-run operation but, like most of his colleagues, Li is classified a “temporary” worker, which means he receives none of the welfare benefits that usually go to staff at state-owned enterprises.
He gets no basic salary, and is instead paid for every cart of coal he digs and sends up to the surface. He works 10 hours a day, 25 days a month.
Li’s three elder brothers had a similar deal, as did their father before that. It seems likely that Li’s 15 year-old son, who graduates from secondary school next year, will also end up in the mines.
The Li family’s situation is similar to those of many in the Sanmenxia area. Coal was first discovered in this mountainous region at the beginning of the last century and local people have scratched a living out of the proceeds for generations. It is either that or subsistence-level farming.
Li’s big advantage is that he is employed by a state-owned mine. Until last year, his 20-plus years as a miner had been spent at small, and often illegal, private collieries, earning about US$110 a month. He hated the experience and describes the private mine owners as “ghosts sucking people’s blood.”
With the market price of coal in Sanmenxia currently around US$40.20 per ton, proprietors can expect to pocket about US$26.80 for every ton sold, once production and transportation costs as well as tax are deducted.
Li says they pay miners about RMB10 (US$1.34) per ton.
Even the smallest mine in the area can yield 100,000 tons of coal per year for a minimum of 10 years, which equates to an annual income of nearly US$2.7 million for mine owners. Illegal mine operators pay some of this to officials to turn a blind eye.
The mine in which Li works has been in operation since the 1950s so the coal seams near the surface are long gone. To get to the coalface he must walk five kilometers underground, a journey which takes about 40 minutes.
To walk in a mine is to go through tunnel after tunnel, each about two meters in height and cut at an angle of about 45 degrees. It is a stifling experience, as the air is filled with gas. Dim red lights are attached to the tunnel ceiling and, apart from the lamps carried by the miners, there is nothing else to guide the way.
Forget the elevators carrying people up and down vertical mine shafts as seen on Chinese television – they are few and far between. According to Ma Yunshan, a manager at Sanmenxia, most of the mines across Henan, Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces boast little, if any, mechanization.
Life on the edge
In this kind of operation, safety is obviously a concern but Li said he is numb to it. He lost one of his brothers in a mine accident in 1993, and such occurrences are so common that people have grown used to them.
“Four years ago one of my workmates was hit by a big rock and died beside me,” Li said. “I put his body into the coal cart and took it up to the ground and then to hospital in an ambulance and, after that, the mortuary. Then I came back and went on digging. No special feelings.”
The families of accident victims receive US$2,680 in compensation. Rescue efforts are minimal.
Despite the danger, Li and other miners in Sanmenxia are grateful for their jobs. Not far away in Jiaozuo, once one of the largest coal production bases in Henan, mines are shutting down because the coal is running out. Local leaders are being blamed for encouraging the growth of small and inefficient mining operations at any cost. In the miners’ eyes, the price being paid is their livelihoods.