“A year is a long time and it includes moments of joy, sorrow and, yes, indignation. We admit that bad things happen all the time, but when terrible things happen that should not have happened it can send one into a fit of fury – justifiable fury.” So reads the China Daily’s “Top 10 angry moments of 2009” entry as part of its “Top 10 Everything of 2009.”
At the bottom of the list of tragedies that “should not have happened” is the story of the November 22 gas explosion at state-owned Xinxing Coal Mine in Hegang, Heilongjiang province, which killed 108 workers, and destroyed the lives of as many families.
The horrific event occurred the very month that Shanxi, the country’s largest coal producing province, was in the throes of nationalizing its coal mines on the pretext of improving safety and efficiency.
In November, just days before the Xinxing disaster, the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin published a report by Han Dongfang, who noted that Shanxi’s governor Wang Jun told a provincial meeting on mine safety on February 20 that he would "rather be berated than witness mourning" following a string of coal mine disasters over the previous years.
Two days later, a gas explosion at the state-owned Dunlan coal mine killed 78 people and wounded over a hundred more.
“Faced with such an atrocious safety record at large-scale state-owned coal mines, how could anyone possibly be convinced by the argument that merging and restructuring coal resources can, in and of itself, protect the lives of workers?” Han asked.
He believes Shanxi’s move to close and merge dodgy small, privately run mines with larger state-run operations will “only improve coal mine safety if, in addition, the miners themselves are allowed and encouraged to play a key role in safety management and engage in collective bargaining with their bosses over pay and work conditions.”
Only when an effective system for resolving the safety problems inherent in China’s public and private coal mines has been established will safety standards actually improve, he believes.
Emerging signals from official media suggest that with the economy back in motion, Beijing may return to the issue of workers’ rights and address the crying need for collective bargaining in securing health and safety conditions, as well as greater communication between employers and workers.
But looking at just a couple of news headlines from the last 24 hours, hope for all workers to make a living without fear of death or injury seems a distant thing: